Alumni Profile • John Dahm '61
Welcoming the children-in prison

John DahmJohn Dahm '61 knows some grim statistics. He's been in the prison business for 33 years, 21 of them as a warden. One statistic that especially bothers him is this: The child of an incarcerated parent is six times more likely, when grown, to go to prison.

"If we can do something to break that cycle," Dahm said, "we could prevent so much suffering, not to mention save money."

As warden of the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, Dahm oversees a program designed to help break the cycle of generational incarceration. The four-component program begins with pregnant inmates. Those who want to keep their babies are carefully screened by a six-member staff committee. If the mother-to-be has no violence in her record and has a reasonable chance of being released within 18 months, she may be accepted into the prison's nursery program.

When her baby is born, the inmate moves into a separate living unit within the prison where 15 individual rooms, each with a bed and a crib, surround a common kitchen and comfortable living room equipped with changing tables and baby seats, books and toys. There, up to 15 new mothers live and take care of their babies-newborns to 18 months-together. They attend parenting classes, substance abuse treatment or other programs, or work at part-time jobs while trained inmate aides care for the children. The rest of the time they care for and play with their babies, including walking them in strollers on the grounds.

The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., pioneered such a prison nursery program in the 1930s. Nebraska's facility and three others are the only ones in the country to have replicated it, though others are exploring nursery programs.

It's not a matter of cost, Dahm said. "If you figure what foster care for these babies costs the state, it's about a wash for mothers to keep them in prison."

Two other components in addition to the nursery make the parenting program that Dahm oversees one-of-a-kind. Inmates who enter the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women as mothers already-about 70 percent of all inmates-may apply to have their children under the age of 6 come for overnight stays and older children for special day visits that include more privacy and structured activities than typical prison visits.

No other prison in the country offers incarcerated mothers more times and options for being with their children, newborns to teenagers. Many simply offer Nebraska's fourth program component-parenting classes-and day visits in the prison's visiting room.

"The corrections system, historically, has been very risk-averse," Dahm explained. "Lawyers warn about the huge liability issues in bringing children into a prison, and wardens say, 'Why take on one more area of risk?'

"Plus, people-prison staff and the public-think that if we give inmates the privileges of our program we're not punishing them. We're being 'soft on crime.'

"Look, incarceration is the punishment. My job isn't to make life any harder for these women. And it's as much about the children as it is the mothers. The children are in some ways the victims of the crimes as well as the true victims. Since 1977 the population of women in U.S. prisons has jumped by 757 percent; 1.3 million children have mothers in prison. Do we need to punish them, too?"

Dahm invites readers who want to learn more about the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women parenting program to e-mail jdahm@dcs.state.ne.us.