(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia prison officials say they want to stop separating mothers who give birth while incarcerated from their newborns by opening a nursery in one of their women’s prisons.

The proposal is part of what the Department of Corrections is billing as a “gender responsivity plan” they’ll begin rolling out next month, when they’ll move 300 inmates across the state to consolidate operations and management of the four facilities that currently house women.

“Female prisons will operate noticeably differently than traditional male institutions,” said department spokeswoman Lisa Kinney in an email, saying the new female-focused team will address everything from nutrition to programming.

Four women have given birth while in the department’s custody this year and another woman is currently pregnant, Kinney said. The department’s proposal, which has not yet been finalized, would allow women who enter prison while they’re pregnant to keep their babies with them in a nursery setting as long as the woman is expected to be released by the time the child is 18 months old.

Six states offer similar programs, according to a consultant hired by the department.

“Right now, women cannot keep babies in Virginia prison,” Kinney said. “After they give birth at a hospital, someone else has to take guardianship of the baby. Whether that is a husband, a grandmother, etc. just depends on the circumstances of that particular offender. Over the past year, Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women has transported breast milk for two offenders who gave birth while incarcerated so they could send that breast milk home to their newborns.”

The Department of Corrections has faced harsh criticism recently over its treatment of women, namely at Fluvanna, where a federal judge ruled the medical care was so poor it violated inmates’ constitutional rights. Lawyers representing the women say 15 died, including three this year since the judge ordered improvements.

The department, which denies wrongdoing and is appealing the judge’s ruling, isn’t connecting its plan to those problems, instead framing it as the latest in a series of efforts to “methodically apply criminal justice science and research.”

To start, their plan calls for transferring inmates currently housed at the Deerfield Women’s Work Centers in southern Virginia about 100 miles north to the State Farm Work Center in Goochland, which currently houses men and is just down the road from the state’s other two women’s facilities and about 40 miles from Fluvanna. (The roughly 300 men held in Goochland will be transferred to Deerfield.)

Kinney said the move will be accompanied by new gender-responsive programming and a focus on trauma informed-care. The department has brought in two consultants from the California-based Center for Gender and Justice, Barbara Bloom and Stephanie Covington, who are both planning to make their first visits to Virginia prisons this week, which they said will include site visits, group meetings with both staff and inmates, and, early next year, staff training.

In a phone interview, Covington said their recommendations are based on research that shows policies that work for male inmates don’t work for female inmates – a growing segment of the prison population both nationally and in Virginia. She said it’s also important for corrections officials to recognize that many women in the criminal justice system suffer from deep trauma – something “that many standard operating practices in prisons can trigger.”

She said the policies the state is pursuing will require significant changes all the way down to how facilities are secured.

“You can imagine, for a woman who’s a trauma survivor, what it might feel like to be restrained, strip-searched and put into isolation,” she said, all steps she said could be avoided with new protocols. “Our system works differently than other countries. There are other ways to be safe.”

Watchdog groups expressed cautious optimism at news of the plans, but expressed concern that the women being transferred from southern to central Virginia might be further away from family and friends as a result. “We’re glad to see they’re at least thinking about it,” said Bill Farrar, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties in Virginia.

“That said, VDOC tends to apply blanket solutions to every problem. What we see here is, it appears that every woman in state care is being shuffled around for – possibly good reasons – but in an arbitrary way that may result in them being further distanced from the family support that is critical to successful reentry.”

As part of the plan, corrections officials are proposing three “reentry sites” around the state they say “would provide a safe opportunity to practice reentry into the community, including overnight visits with family, securing employment and building bank accounts.”

Kinney said that while the department has funding to establish the nursery, the new reentry centers are dependent on additional state funding from the governor and General Assembly.