Women in Criminal Justice Article Review: Carlson

Carlson Jr., J.R. (2009). Prison nurseries: A pathway to crime-free futures. Corrections Compendium, 34(1), 17-24.

1.      Main Thesis: Carlson details the recent history of prison nursery programs across 10 states. He points out the growing need to consider the situations of incarcerated mothers. Based on recidivism rates, positive media attention, community good, the potential to break the cycle of generational incarceration, and low relative cost, this article shows that prison nursery programs are in the best interest of all involved.

2.      Body of Evidence: Carlson reviews literature surrounding prison nursery programs and points out that more research is needed in this area. For example, he says that “The most recent and only study on the level of attachment between mothers and babies while in prison was completed in the New York prison nursery system” (17)(emphasis mine). Based on the work of other criminology scholars, Carlson argues that children in prison nursery programs may even have advantages over “low-risk community children whose mothers had no criminal history” (17). Carlson also gives time to arguments against nursery programs, and he counters them by shifting the focus away from the prisoner and back to the well-being of the child. Next, Carlson gives a brief review of each of the 10 nursery programs underway in 2008 by state: New York, Nebraska, Washington, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia, and South Dakota. Most importantly, he focuses on recidivism rates for participants in each of these programs and establishes a strong pattern showing that participation in nursery programs significantly reduces mothers’ tendency to return to prison. Finally, Carlson details a specific study undertaken at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women at York. Using historical data provided by NCCW staff, he shows improvement in recidivism trends, decreases in misconduct reports, and inmate satisfaction associated the prison nursery program. He uses this detailed description to demonstrate the relatively low financial cost and significant social gain associated with prison nursery programs.

3.      Conclusions: Carlson found that inmates “overwhelmingly” supported the Nebraska nursery program, that the NCCW staff supported it, and that media attention was positive (22). In addition, Carlson found “a demonstrated lower recidivism rate of 16.8 percent for women who successfully went through the nursery program, compared with 50 percent for the previous population of women who were forced to give up their babies” (22). He reports that these findings are representative of other states as well, and concludes that it is in the best interest of all involved to implement and extend prison nursery programs.

4.      My Conclusions: It surprised me that only 10 states have prison nursery programs, and I wanted Carlson to focus on the international context in order to show that the U.S. is not very progressive in this area. I also found myself wishing that he would have foregrounded the financial justification for his conclusion more; it seems that those people who oppose prison nurseries based on their cost might be persuaded to support them if faced with the costs associated with repeat offenders. However, I also recognize that Carlson’s audience is other criminologists. He is not seeking to persuade naysayers (although his attention to counter-arguments on page 17 indicates that he at least thought about this); he is seeking to provide an empirical study and its implications to the criminal justice community. With this in mind, I think this article was well written, succinct, and complete. I certainly learned a lot from it!


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