Prisons are allowing mothers to raise their babies behind bars. But is the radical experiment in parenting and punishment a good idea?

Prison nursery programs remain rare nationwide, but eight facilities in as many states have opened them amid dramatic growth in the number of incarcerated women, touching off a fierce debate.

Inmate Destiny Doud poses for a portrait in her room with her 10-month-old daughter, Jaelynn Purcell, at Decatur Correctional Center in Decatur, Illinois on April 9, 2018. (Whitney Curtis | The Washington Post)

Decatur, Ill. • Destiny Doud thought she had just 48 hours to be a mother.

Like most of the hundreds of pregnant women who give birth while serving time each year, Doud was slated to give up her newborn to a relative just days after the baby was born last May.

Doud recalled hugging Jaelynn close at the hospital, waiving off nurses’ offers to take the girl to the nursery. She wanted every minute to hold her daughter ahead of that wrenching separation.

But just before handing off the baby to her own father, Doud learned she had qualified for a radical alternative. She could raise Jaelynn behind bars.

On June 2, 2017, Doud cradled her newborn as she passed through a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, through heavy steel doors to a cell outfitted with a crib. A sign on the door reads: “Doud: Y21214 Baby: Jaelynn.”

The Decatur Correctional Center is the only home the girl with wispy blonde hair and ice-blue eyes has known in her 11 months.

Prison nursery programs remain rare nationwide, but eight facilities in as many states have opened them amid dramatic growth in the number of incarcerated women. The bold experiment in punishment and parenting has touched off a fierce debate.

Advocates say the programs allow mothers to forge a crucial early bond with children, creating healthier kids and a spur for mothers to improve their lives. Detractors say prison is no environment for children and that the programs may simply put off an inevitable split between many children and their mothers, making it that much more painful.

Doud and Jaelynn are among dozens of test cases.

Doud faces a daunting road back to routine family life. At 21, she is serving a12-year sentencefor bringing methamphetamine across the Illinois state line. She is trying to tame a drug addiction and figure out a career with only a high school diploma. She’s allowed to send Jaelynn’s father baby photos, but he too is in prison.

Still, she said the program has given her fledging family a lifeline — one she intends to seize. Doud, whose own mother was in and out of jail when she was a child, said she is determined to make sure a third generation of her family does not end up incarcerated.

“She reminds me that I have something that’s great now,” Doud said, smiling at Jaelynn in Decatur’s nursery. “Something to live for.”

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At the end of a hallway on a special wing, the drab, institutional walls of this minimum-security facility erupt in a riot of colorful murals: Children play on a jungle gym, a bright sun beats down on a church, and a yellow school bus chugs along.

Hand-drawn portraits of children hang nearby, and tiny handprints climb up a column at the center of a large room. Infants giggle, slumber in their mother’s arms and strain to turn over in play gyms.

It’s easy to mistake for a day care — that is, until the uniformed prison guards begin their rounds.

Welcome to the “Moms and Babies” program.

Six women and their infants, ages newborn to 11 months, live in the unit, which is segregated from the prison’s general population. Each pair’s home is a typical cell, specially outfitted with cribs, changing tables and additional lively murals.

Decatur’s warden, Shelith Hansbro, said the cells are not barred and that women are not handcuffed on the wing because it can distress the children, even as young as they are. Still, security remains paramount.

Cameras are perched above each crib. The prison doesn’t house sex offenders. And when a child is taken outside the nursery unit, all prisoners are ordered to stop moving about the facility and remain where they are.The children can play outdoors in a prison yard retrofitted with a jungle gym.

There are strict criteria for selecting participants. The women must only have nonviolent offenses on their records and typically have sentences that are two years or less, so mother and child never have to be separated and the children’s time in prison is limited to their earliest years. Though Doud’s sentence is longer than most women in the program, she could qualify to serve some of that in a residential drug treatment center.

There are counselors and a child aide to help the mothers, and other inmates at the facility serve as day-care workers so the women can attend classes to get GEDs, improve life skills, and receive drug and alcohol counseling. Hansbro said the approach is compassionate, but also tough.

“We tell them we are going to be up in your business,” Hansbro said. “We are going to be telling you things about how to raise your child that you might disagree with.”

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On a Monday morning in April, Doud and the other moms gathered in a circle with their babies perched on their prison-issued blue scrubs. Led by a volunteer, each took turns reading passages from “The Velveteen Rabbit.”

Christine Duckwitz, 30, cradled 2-month-old Isabelle and turned the pages. The mother from rural Illinois was caught with heroin last year. Isabelle’s father overdosed and died on Christmas Eve, just a month before the girl was born.

LaTonya Jackson, 38, read to 5-month-old Olivia, who was decked out in a Minnie Mouse outfit, with a black bow on her head. The girl’s brother, the eldest of eight, was gunned down in a drug deal turned robbery in St. Louis soon after Jackson arrived at Decatur for a theft conviction.

Such turmoil is common in the lives of the women, Hansbro said. Things as simple as reading books to children sometimes fall by the wayside. Other mothers have never had such rudimentary parenting themselves, so the program begins with the basics.

“We have found that if there is going to be anything that keeps women from reoffending, it’s going to be their bonds with their children,” Hansbro said. “If we expect them to be successful, we need them to give them those tools they need to be successful.”

The reading session ended with the volunteer asking the women what the moral of the story was.

“What’s the lesson?” the woman asked. “That love makes you real?”

As the women answered and talked, Jaelynn tottered off unsteadily and grabbed a ball, before plopping over. Some of the women burst into laughter. Jaelynn had taken her first steps that week.

“She can barely walk, but she thinks she can run,” Doud said proudly.

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In October 2016, Doud and her boyfriend were speeding down an Illinois highway with 104 grams of methamphetamine they planned to sell. She noticed police cars streaming toward them in the oncoming lanes.

“Right then, I knew we were going to prison,” Doud said. “I told my boyfriend, ‘I love you; I’ll miss you.’ ”

Doud and Jaelynn’s soon-to-be father were charged with meth trafficking, the result of a drug habit that spiraled out of control.

Doud’s situation soon grew more desperate. She said she woke in the middle of the night, sick to her stomach, nine days after her arrest. The jail nurse gave her a pregnancy test. Doud was stunned by the results.

“She said, ‘Congratulations!’ ” Doud said. “I was like, ‘No, this is not positive. I’m going to prison.’ ”

There are no current figures for how many women give birth while incarcerated, but the growth in prison nurseries is playing out against the backdrop of a massive increase in incarcerated women in recent decades, including mothers.

The number of women behind bars increased more than 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, from roughly 26,000 to nearly 214,000, according to the Sentencing Project. The growth outpaced the increase in male incarceration by roughly 50 percent.

The latest statistics on parents in prison are from 2007, but the Justice Department reported a 122 percent increase in mothers in state and federal prison between 1991 and that year. Nearly 1.7 million children had a parent behind bars.

Some experts attribute the increase in women’s incarceration, in both jail and prison, to spiking drug arrests and an emphasis in some areas on aggressive enforcement of minor offenses such as theft and public drunkenness.

A number of states have done away with the common practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth, while others have moved to require prisons to have medical plans, proper nutrition and other basics available for pregnant women. Prison nurseries are one of the most progressive approaches.

But not everyone is on board.

Some advocates for female prisoners argue mothers with low-level offenses should be allowed to raise their children in less restrictive settings.

On the other side, James Dwyer, a professor of law at William & Mary who focuses on children and family issues, said many of the mothers are not good long-term prospects as parents, that prisons are dangerous and unstimulating for children, and that it may even be unconstitutional to place a child in prison when no crime has been committed.

He said the programs also don’t take a considered approach to making hard decisions about what’s best for children in challenging family situations.

“There is no involvement of child protective services or juvenile court,” Dwyer said. “You just have prison wardens or their delegates deciding that a kid should enter into a prison without making any best-interest determination.”

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Doud eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of meth delivery. She was sentenced to 12 years in prison but is eligible for parole as soon as 2022. Jaelynn’s father got a lengthy sentence for meth trafficking.

Jaelynn was born on May 30. Doud said getting into the prison nursery program was a relief, but she was also anxious as she headed to Decatur: What affect would prison have on Jaelynn?

When she arrived, she said the other women in the program had decorated her cell and made her a gift package of diapers, wipes and lotion.

“It was like my own baby shower,” Doud said.

Doud and the other women said they believe their children are better off with them in prison and that their children have not suffered adverse effects behind bars. But there are challenges.

There are no trips to grandmother’s house, no outings to the zoo or story time at the library. The children are only allowed to leave the prison to attend pediatrician appointments, although family members can make weekly visits to the facility.

Jackson said she recalled taking Olivia into the prison yard one day and the girl tasting the air, as if it were something new and strange.

The women have forged their own patchwork family and spend a lot of time trading parenting stories, tips and joking in the center of the nursery. As someone scrawled on a post: “We all we got.”

Largely cut off from friends and family, Doud said those connections are especially important for her, as a first-time mom. She said she has a never-ending stream of questions: When would Jaelynn’s teeth come in? How do you treat diaper rash?

Duckwitz, who has three other children on the outside, said the program helps women “learn how to be a good mom - an opportunity they wouldn’t have on the outside.”

Doud is taking every class she can at Decatur and has remained sober. In January, Jaelynn watched as Doud graduated from her substance-abuse class. Doud said Jaelynn also appears to be hitting her development marks, even reaching many early.

Because Doud has a longer sentence than most women in the program, she is hoping she will be permitted to finish the last two years at a residential drug treatment program in Chicago. Jaelynn could live with her.

More than 90 women have gone through the Moms and Babies program in 11 years, and only two have returned to prison within three years of release, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Only two women have been removed from the program.

Research on prison nursery programs is limited, but some studies show similar promise. One found that a group of preschool-age children who were raised in prison nurseries were less anxious and depressed than a control group of children who were separated from their incarcerated mothers in the early years. Another concluded the recidivism rate of mothers who participated in prison nursery programs was only 4 percent.

Doud and Jaelynn still have a long way to go before becoming one of these positive statistics, but Doud’s father said he’s noticed a change in his daughter. He is cautiously optimistic for them.

“In the long run, this might be the best thing that happened to her,” James McQuinn said. “It got her out of her life.”