Every year, nearly 2,000 babies are born inside the confines of American prisons. The vast majority of those babies are immediately separated from their mothers. But that’s not the case at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, which houses one of the country’s oldest prison nurseries. As one of only nine prisons in America with a nursery, Bedford Hills allows some inmate mothers—those not convicted of violent crimes, arson, or crimes involving children—to live with their infants for up to 18 months in a wing of the prison separated from the general population.
Since the mothers are often pulled away from the nursery—for things like work assignments or attending high school equivalency classes—a group of women volunteer a couple hours a week to help with the infants. Known as the Cuddlers, this group of women (all mothers or grandmothers themselves) spend time feeding the babies, singing lullabies, dancing to Raffi songs, or playing with blocks. “As anyone who works with infants or toddlers knows, having an extra pair of hands and a smiling face can really make a child’s day,” says Liz Hamilton, manager of the prison’s Infant Center, which averages about 12 babies a year. “I always joke that when I retire, I want to come back and be
Lorri Mallon, a Yorktown mother of four, spent four years as a Cuddler. “I wanted to meet some of these [prisoners], hear their stories—I wanted to help these women,” she says. “It was rewarding—you learn a lot about society, your own privileges, and what we take for granted.”
What is it like volunteering inside the Infant Center? Says Hamilton: “We have a little girl who’s been going through stranger anxiety—she cries whenever someone new walks in the door. The other day, when our Cuddler came in, she ran to her clapping and holding up her arms. Where else do people clap when you walk in the door?”