Bodies in a Zone of Indistinction: a history of the Biomedicalization of Pregnancy in Prison

Fund scientific research, participatory action research, and program

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Fund scientific research, participatory action research, and program

evaluations of prison nurseries and community-based residential parenting

programs to reveal best practices and the potential benefits of system reforms.

-There have been very few evaluations and scientific research

studies conducted of prison nursery programs and even fewer

of community-based mother-child programs. Through research,

best practices and needed reforms can be identified and


Although Villaneuva does not define “scientific” research per say, the use of this word likely indicates a continuation of quantifying programs’ worth through surveys and other measures that easily fit into a biomedical model framework within public health initiatives. Moreover, these recommendations not only reify the importance of healthcare research (and funding for this research) but the research it produces can also serve as evidence for advocates, policy makers, and politicians to implement laws establishing further administrative growth in creating spaces in prison for inmates to mother infants.

From this discussion, it is evident that the goal of fostering prison nurseries is quite multiplicitous. Villaneuva demonstrates both the overt and covert implication of such programs when she writes, “The primary goal of most prison nursery programs is to promote bonding between mothers and children while giving mothers tools to become better parents. A secondary goal is to reduce recidivism among incarcerated mothers by encouraging them to make lifestyle changes following release.”79 In both justifications, the disciplining of the mother is still implicit—bonding can be seen as an instrumental technique to also incorporate moralizing programs on motherhood and “proper” (read “civilized”) childrearing techniques. In addition, their encouragement to make “lifestyle” changes again furthers neoliberal discourses on individual blame for criminalization, while ignoring the larger structural factors that contribute to the criminalization certain behaviors (or phenotypes) in the first place.

Finally, Joseph Carlson Jr. claims that prison nurseries “a pathway to crime-free futures.” While he may seem quite idealistic in his proclamation, he does note that lower rates of recidivism are correlated with the installation of prison nurseries:

Ten states have begun prison nurseries, with more states considering

that option. It is recognized that a nursery program will not solve all

of the problems of participants, but it is apparent that it will reduce

recidivism. It is believed that in the future nursery programs will

become a more normal part of prison operations, and it is in the best

interests of states, inmates and their babies to move quickly in this


Again, throughout his article, Carlson does not refer to “problems of participants” as structural issues, but emphasized individual psychological dynamics of engagement.81 Moreover, his pronouncement of prison nurseries as programs that would be in the “best interests of states” could be read as a thinly veiled comment on the high financial cost of incarceration.82 Finally, it seems that he conflates the “best interests” of the mother and infant with an idea of “good” citizenship to the State, and the question remains if urgency in Carlson’s tone is truly considering the best options for mothers and their children or if he is placing more value on the bottom line of the state.

With thirteen states now running such programs, it is likely that more systems for housing children with inmates will continue to spread across the country.83 Through the techniques of incorporating scientific research and psychomedical language mentioned above, researchers and policy makers generate the proliferation of biomedical discourses in public spheres. While these programs may foster strong relationships between mothers and infants in prison, perhaps a higher level intervention will be necessary to promote larger reconceptualizing female criminality and the role of the prison.

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