Recently, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Senior Member of the House Judiciary Committee and Founder and Co-Chair of the House Children’s Caucus, introduced HR 5130 – the Stop Infant Mortality and Recidivism Reduction Act of 2016. Also known as the “SIMARRA Act,” HR 5130 permits the Bureau of Prisons to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Federal prison system for pregnant offenders by establishing a pilot program of critical-stage, developmental nurseries in federal prisons for children born to inmates.
“We cannot afford to lose any more of our nation’s children, or continue break the nurturing bonds between mother and child,” said Congresswoman Jackson Lee. “Currently, the Bureau of Prisons lacks the resources and direction to respond adequately to the needs of infants born to incarcerated mothers. The SIMARRA Act will provide resources and programming to ensure a healthy and safe environment for these children during their critical stages of development.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the national infant mortality rate is 5.96 deaths per 1,000 births, increasing to 7.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births for Hispanic inmates, and 14.3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births among African American inmates. Other studies have documented that parental incarceration elevates the risk of early infant death by 29.6% for the average infant, concentrating effects during the post-neonatal period. Incarceration compounds women’s depression and the risk of contracting infectious or chronic stress-related illnesses, which may harm infant health through numerous mechanisms also increasing infant mortality rates.
The ‘SIMARRA Act’ will decrease unprecedentedly high, current infant mortality rates and allow inmate mothers to provide healthy and safe gestation to protect their unborn, as well as bond with infants during their first 30 months of life, designated by the CDC as one of the most critical stages of development. The ‘SIMARRA Act’ simultaneously implements risk and needs assessments, risk reduction incentives, and risk and recidivism reduction programs to address the healthcare, safety and rehabilitative needs of new-mother-inmates as they serve their sentence.
Ten states currently operate successful similar programs and studies have shown that 71% of the babies served attained attachment goals with their inmate-mothers while in a prison nursery setting, a percentage greater than that reported by most low-risk, community children whose mothers had no criminal history or involvement. Nursery participants also had a lower recidivism rate compared to non-participating mothers.
Mass incarceration not only fosters inequality but also diminishes a child’s chances of surviving its first year of life, which combined together can further hinder a child’s life chances. The most likely long-term mechanism through which imprisonment affects infant mortality is through its effects on maternal health.