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Prison Babies

A program for mothers sentenced to prison in California allows non-violent offenders to have one or two kids -- under age six – to live with them in the facility.

Supporters say it's better than placing the children in foster care, but critics say that prison is no place for kids. Tracy Smith reports.

In a sunny suburb of Los Angeles, children know all about having fun on the playground. What they may not know is that their mothers can't leave. It's the new reality in the California correctional system: prison for women with children.

Inmate Gina West is serving time for drug and forgery convictions. She was pregnant when she was transferred from a regular women's prison. Her daughter Hailey has never known any other home.

West says she has no problem telling her child that she was born in a prison because the inmate has nothing to hide. In a way, she has a lot to be proud of: The facility is a model of communal living.

Inmates have private rooms and share them with their children. Public areas are bright and cheerful. Inmates have access to computers and the nursery is state of the art and has everything from kid-size toilets to favorite toys.

But despite the homey atmosphere, officials say inmates have no illusions about where they are.

"We have security," administrator David Robinson says. "All the doors are armed, so if they were opened, an alarm would go off."

It may not look like a real prison, but it's still no picnic. Women are required to be up at 6 a.m. and feed their kids by 7 a.m. All inmates take turns with kitchen chores.

After breakfast, women go to classes for everything from childcare to substance abuse -- and the kids go to a professionally staffed nursery. In some ways, it's a better deal than many working mothers get. Critics say that's just not right.

"They have all the benefits, they have all the advantages, they have all of the privileges that free women don't have and other incarcerated women don't have," Victim's Rights Advocate Diane Clements says. "It's not a reality. There is no guarantee that these women will come out any different than the way they went in."

No guarantees, but officials say women who are in the program are less likely to go back.

"What we find is that the recidivism rate is like maybe 15 percent, where at a traditional prison it's at 47 percent," says Robinson.

But if those who believe the purpose of prison is punishment, is anyone being punished there? And victims' rights advocates say criminals should not get special treatment just because they may have a drug problem and happen to be mothers.

"It might even be an interesting concept," says Clemens. "If you're drug addicted, maybe you should have a child so when you do get convicted you can have the benefit of this wonderful homelike environment to do your time."

"I think everybody deserves a chance," says inmate Gina West. "Finally, we have a program that's put together to give us a chance … We're no different than anybody else … just made bad decisions, bad choices. We're not bad."