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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Human Rights Program Supports Student Investigation of Children Incarcerated with their Mothers

In most countries of the world, mothers are permitted keep their infants and young children with them in prisons. The well-being of children whose mothers are incarcerated is a relatively unseen, understudied phenomenon with evident developmental and human rights implications.

There are prison nurseries in nine states in the United States: New York, Nebraska, California, Washington, Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota, Illinois, and West Virginia. According to Sarah Diamond, Ph.D. and Jasmine Orwish-Gross, the nurseries allow mothers to parent their infants, usually in a separate unit, for a fixed period of time.

Fascinated by the implications of this issue, Julie Matonich, a Minneapolis lawyer who has represented criminal defendants with small children, joined with others in the community to form an organization called the Prison Nursery Project. "These arrangements certainly have profound impacts on the women and their children," noted Matonich, "and we all have a stake in understanding what conditions and outcomes are in the best interest of these families." PNP has a top-notch advisory board of scholars, activists and criminal law experts, to frame the human rights issues involved in these situations in the U.S. and on a global basis.

This summer, with the assistance of the Human Rights Program, the Prison Nursery Project (PNP) is drawing on the energy and talent of an interdisciplinary team of students from the University of Minnesota to conduct an in-depth report the phenomenon. The student researchers include Ethan Scrivner (Law), Ashir Kane Risman (Public Policy), Veronica Horowitz (Sociology), Jaleesa Wright (Family Social Science), Vered Windman (Humphrey Fellow), and Melanie Paurus (Global Studies). The students will work as a team to carry out inter-disciplinary research what is known about the lives of children living in prison nurseries. They will collect and analyze academic and professional information and will make recommendations to PNP about how to proceed with their advocacy.

The work of the summer team builds on the research contributions of Dani Castaño and Professor Carolina Rojas of Universidad Católica de Oriente in Colombia who mapped out the laws and practices with regard to prison nurses in their country. Castaño was a student visitor at the University of Minnesota in spring semester 2015 as part of the UMN-Antioquia law school partnership.

Professor James Ron of the Humphrey School, and Barbara Frey of the Human Rights Program, are both members of the PNP board and are happy to see the involvement of these University of Minnesota students in the research. "The students bring distinct academic strengths and skill sets to the project," says Ron, "and they must learn to operate as a think tank to present their best collective findings and recommendations to this start-up organization." In the end, the summer consultancy should prove to be a "win-win," according to Ron. "PNP will gain the information it needs and the students will gain the kind of experience that sets them apart in the field of human rights."