The Utah Legislature didn’t fund Utah’s prison nursery. Here’s why.

The Utah Legislature cited oversight concerns after numerous shortcomings in prison health care were detailed in back-to-back audits.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angie McEaneney, holds a photo of her newborn son Erik, now 6-months-old next to her sister Felicia Schoenberger, who kisses her daughter Attikiss, 1, as they talk about their pregnancy experiences and births while incarcerated at the Utah State Correctional Facility in 2021. McEaneney had a high-risk pregnancy and Schoenberger's daughter had surgery when she was 10-days-old.

From inside the gates of the Utah State Correctional Facility, two sisters with overlapping sentences spent all the time they could on the phone or on video calls, singing and talking to their newborn babies as they healed from hard births — and the heartbreak of not being able to see their days-old children grow.

For the first year of her life, Felicia Schoenberger’s daughter knew her mom only by her voice, and the way she would croon “You Are My Sunshine” from the other end of the line. Schoenberger’s younger sister Angela McEaneney, who had a child eight months later while also incarcerated, would constantly remind her son that “mommy loves you,” even though she couldn’t be there to hold him.

Despite those efforts, the sisters are still struggling to build a maternal connection with their babies now that they get to embrace them on the outside months after they last saw them in a hospital.

“She’s taken to me, but she loves grandma,” Schoenberger said as 1-year-old Attikiss latched onto her shirt. “Like, when she wants anything, she goes for grandma, because that’s all she’s known.”

Some mothers who give birth while serving time at the Utah State Correctional Facility, like Schoenberger and McEaneney, may soon have the chance to get to know their babies face-to-face, without having to worry about severed attachments and if they’ll be strangers to their own child upon being released.

Built into the new prison, which opened nearly one year ago, is a four-bed nursery for moms and infants. But as the Department of Corrections tries to get the program off the ground, it’s run into a major roadblock — it wasn’t able to secure funding from the Legislature during this year’s legislative session.

Lawmakers cited oversight of the nursery as a concern after numerous shortcomings were found in two recent audits of the prison’s health care system, and instead opted to create an advisory board under the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee how programs like the nursery are implemented.

Without financial support, the department is now turning to donations from the community and federal grants. Although later than initially anticipated, the Department of Corrections is eyeing July for a tentative opening date for the nursery.

While the sisters share some of the Legislature’s reservations about whether there might be adequate medical care, they both hope the nursery is successful so that moms looking to break old habits, like them, have the chance to be just that — moms.

Holding a picture of her 7-month-old son Erik, McEaneney said, “I don’t want him to think we’re friends, I want him to know that we’re parents, we’re mom and dad.”

The nursery

Amid stacked boxes of diapers and mint-colored rocking chairs lined against the wall, Department of Corrections programming director Anndrea Parrish and parenting coordinator Trisha Reynolds talked about their to-do list to make the white, concrete-floored room welcoming for young families.

It has breast pumps, fridges for milk, a washer and dryer and rolling cribs, but there’s still a lot that needs to be purchased — a soft floor for babies to crawl and play on, gates to keep them from wandering into the doorless bathroom area.

“I think we’re just going to have to ask for community support to get some of these things done,” Parrish said. Reynolds applied for federal help, but the grant is meant to address substance use, so there’s only so much they can do with the funds.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anndrea Parrish, programming division director and Trisha Reynolds, the intergenerational coordinator for the Utah Department of Corrections, enter the Utah State Correctional Facility nursery unit that will house four incarcerated mothers and their babies on April 7, 2023.

In an average year, around 15 women in the Department of Corrections’ custody give birth while incarcerated, Reynolds said. And with only four beds in the nursery, one topic the new advisory board could discuss is how it might divert new mothers to other settings, like a halfway house, to serve time while caring for their child.

When the nursery opens its doors, it will be one of nine in prisons in states across the country. The oldest, at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York, has been operating since 1901 and is the basis for much of the scholarship around such programs’ impacts.

Over half of incarcerated women have a child under 18 years old, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In most state prisons, including Utah’s, babies are taken away from their mothers within a few days of being born and either placed with a relative or in foster care.

After her baby was born prematurely, Schoenberger only saw her daughter for 45 minutes before being bussed back to the prison. And McEaneney, whose son was also in the neonatal intensive care unit, saw her son three times — twice for 30 minutes, and once for an hour — before being separated.

Although some critics say it can be damaging to a baby to be raised behind bars, advocates point to research that seems to indicate long-term benefits for both moms and children.

Babies who stayed with their moms in prison nurseries had comparable rates of secure attachments — the sense that they are comforted and protected in the presence of their caregiver — to healthy children raised in families on the outside, according to one five-year study.

Another study at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility found that the three-year recidivism rate for nursery program participants was half of what it was for women in the general prison population.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Trisha Reynolds, an intergenerational coordinator for the Utah Department of Corrections, inspects a baby crib at the Utah State Correctional Facility's nursery on April 7, 2023. The nursery will house four incarcerated mothers and their babies and is slated to open in June.

“When you focus on resourcing around women, you get a lot more bang for your buck,” Parrish said, arguing that this program has the potential to help break families out of the cycle of poverty and incarceration. “You get that intergenerational effect.”

What happened at the Legislature

“If Utah truly believes in supporting life, we must always show our commitment with more than words,” Cox told lawmakers in his State of the State address.

He included the nursery as one of several measures aimed at strengthening families in his 2024 budget, asking the Legislature for $308,000 one time, and an ongoing $957,600.

That funding request was eventually brought to the Legislature as part of a fiscal note to Rep. Candice Pierucci’s, R-Riverton, HB429, Pregnant and Postpartum Inmate Amendments, but was taken out in a substitute because she said it was never meant to be a part of her bill.

“My biggest concern was the oversight piece,” Pierucci told The Salt Lake Tribune. “This bill was not meant to be the vehicle to then fund an entire new prison nursery. It was intended that if the prison were to move forward with this prison nursery program, then they would need to meet these requirements.”

When questions about the $1.2 million fiscal note came up in a committee hearing, Department of Corrections Deputy Director Chyleen Richey said the funding request was attached to the bill in case the program wasn’t prioritized in the Executive Appropriations Committee’s budget. It was left off of that budget.

“We would not move forward with this nursery if it doesn’t get prioritized through the Legislature through appropriation,” Richey said at the time.

Spokespeople for the governor’s office did not respond to requests for an interview about the program.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Female inmates and corrections officers walk outside at the Utah State Correctional Facility, April 7, 2023.

While she’s not convinced that a prison nursery is the best option, Pierucci told The Tribune, “I hope this gets the conversation going. ... I think it is in the best interest as a pro-family state to see how we can give these women all the resources we can and try and break the cycle.”

If the Department of Corrections does go forward with the prison nursery, she told the same House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, “I feel like it’s important that we put guardrails in place if we’re going to be having infants in prison with their mothers.”

In the last year and a half, auditors for the Legislature have conducted two audits on the prison’s health care system. During the first, they found that the system was plagued by “systemic deficiencies,” and after over a year, discovered many of auditors’ suggestions hadn’t been implemented due to “a culture of noncompliance and lack of accountability.”

Aiming to make institutional and cultural changes to the prison’s health care system, the Legislature wrote in this year’s appropriations that it “intends that the Department of Corrections work with the Department of Health and Human Services over the 2023 interim to fully transfer provision of medical services at state correctional institutions to the Department of Health and Human Services by July 1, 2024,” and appropriated millions of dollars toward that effort.

Poor medical care at the prison sounds familiar to Schoenberger and McEaneney. During her pregnancy, McEaneney suffered multiple complications. Help was severely delayed, the sisters said.

While at the Salt Lake City prison, which was new at the time, McEaneney said she started “gushing blood” and had to wait 45 minutes for medical providers to respond, and then another hour to get out of the prison’s gate. Meanwhile, she added, the infirmary was reportedly out of oxygen.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angie McEaneney, left, and her sister Felicia Schoenberger talk about their pregnancy experiences and the birth of their children while incarcerated at the Utah State Correctional Facility in 2021. McEaneney had a high-risk pregnancy with her son and Schoenberger's daughter had to have surgery when she was 10-days-old.

“When I first got to the hospital they were trying to find his heartbeat and they couldn’t find it, so they sound the alarm and rushed me to the ER room,” McEaneney said. Her baby was healthy, but the delay could have killed him, she said.

“I wouldn’t trust my baby’s health on the prison because of the lack of response,” McEaneney added.

For the sisters to feel good about health care in the prison’s nursery, they’d want to see more medical staff and resources. Schoenberger, who toward the end of her sentence helped clean the space the nursery will be in, said she hopes they’ll make it more comfortable, so it doesn’t feel like “your child’s in bars now too.”

But the sisters, who both struggled with postpartum depression that they said was exacerbated by the separation from their babies, said any way that the prison can keep mothers and children together is a good step forward.

“When I had him in prison, it’s the worst pain mentally and physically for me,” McEaneney said. “So, it’s not fair for me to be out of his life because of my choices that made me there. So really, I don’t want to do that again.”