William and Mary Law School

Dwyer Weighs in on Mother and Baby Prison Program

On May 27, James G. Dwyer, the Arthur B. Hanson Professor of Law at William & Mary Law School, appeared on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation Radio One’s “The Current,” a show that discusses issues affecting Canadians today.

Dwyer participated in a segment about a prison program that allowed mothers to keep their children with them behind bars. In 2008, after a four-year trial, British Columbia canceled the program, a decision that is now being challenged in the Supreme Court of British Columbia by lawyers who will argue the cancellation violates the rights of the child and the mother.

According to Dwyer, nine states in the U.S. have similar arrangements, with 150 to 160 mothers participating. Despite screenings that disqualify some women, Dwyer said he had grave concerns about such programs.

“The experience of entering prison is symptomatic of deep and serious problems that most [mothers] have, reflected in recidivism and substance abuse and mental health problems and dysfunctional relationships with men,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer described the enormous obstacles women face when they leave prison and are expected to take care of their infants. Among the most difficult impediments to reintegration into the community are finding housing and employment, meeting court dates, reestablishing custody of older children, and restoring relationships with other family members.

“It’s extremely stressful and difficult,” Dwyer said. “And the research suggests that this is just not a good gamble for these children to tie their fate to these women who have such deep personal struggles.”

Dwyer noted that an attachment study in New York has shown that more than half of children were eventually separated from their mothers, many during prison.

An expert on family law, youth law, trusts and estates, and law and social justice, Dwyer joined the William & Mary faculty in 2000. His forthcoming article on babies in prison will appear in the Utah Law Review in 2014.

To listen to the entire episode, please visit The Current on the CBC.

Programming Note: Professor Dwyer will discus the same topic, prison nurseries, on Monday , June 3, and Tuesday, June 4, on the "Raising America" show on HLN. The program runs from noon to 2:00 p.m. each day.