Pubdate: Sun, 14 May 2006
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: E - 1
Copyright: 2006 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Vicki Haddock, Insight Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


With California Inmates Expected to Give Birth to More Than 300 
Babies This Year, Officials Are Preparing to Open the State's First 
Prison Nursery

Juanita Massie can recall her baby's kicks inside her belly, how her 
water broke, how hard she strained in labor as the contractions 
intensified. But her most vivid memory is humiliation -- she was 
shackled to a bedrail. And the sensation of cuddling her newborn was 
fleeting, because the baby was whisked away by a social worker -- and 
Massie was transported back to her 8-foot-by-12-foot prison cell.

"I couldn't show anybody the baby pictures. I cried every single day 
for a month," she said. "I couldn't stop thinking about missing the 
first time my baby smiled, or threw up on me, or took that first 
step. ." Her hormones ricocheted wildly, she ached from the milk that 
would not be nursed out of her swollen breasts, and she says she used 
heroin smuggled into the prison to deaden the shame and loneliness.

"When you're a mother, the first place you want to be is with your 
baby," she said. "And the last place you want to be is in prison."

An inmate giving birth is almost an everyday occurrence in 
California. This year more than 300 babies are expected to be born to 
women incarcerated by the state, and at any given time, about 1 in 10 
of the state's female inmates is pregnant. That population has 
exploded by fivefold since the 1980s, almost entirely because of 
tougher sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes. Most of these prison 
mothers are destined to see their sons and daughters rarely if ever 
until parole, when they can only hope, often in vain, that their 
young children won't shun them as strangers.

"Today is Mother's Day in Mexico, so I'm anxious to see if my kids 
send me a card," said Lucinda Hernandez, who was a struggling single 
mother of five when she first entered prison for creating phony 
payroll checks to herself. Now she is almost eight months pregnant 
and plans to make the most of the two days she'll be able to spend 
with her newborn before an aunt takes her away.

She's scheduled to be paroled a month after giving birth, and plans 
to reunite with the newborn and eventually try to regain her other 
children, now living with her cousin's mother-in-law. It's not her 
first parole, but she swears it will be her last.

Prison pregnancy is a bleak situation. One of the state's three big 
lockups for women is trying to make it less so with something 
radically different for California: a prison nursery where babies 
live with their incarcerated mothers. That's the latest in a series 
of changes on the drawing board as a state corrections commission 
struggles to revamp the old male military model of a boot 
camp-lockdown prison into a system better suited for female inmates. 
Women prisoners are statistically much less prone to violence, more 
likely to have been victims of sexual abuse, and much more likely to 
be the sole parent to their children.

Already reforms have stopped male guards from pat-searching female 
inmates or shackling them during labor and delivery.

The most ambitious goal is tucked inside Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 
budget plan: to move some 4,500 female inmates out of big remote 
mega-institutions and into small community-based correctional centers 
- -- homier, but still locked down. The biggest counterveiling force 
may be the prison guard's union, which opposes the notion of private 
contractors running the community units.

"Right now the system works to break families apart. More than half 
of female prisoners never receive visits from their children, because 
they're located in remote parts of the state often hundreds of miles 
away," said Sonoma State criminal justice professor Barbara Bloom. 
The coauthor of a groundbreaking study for the U.S. Justice 
Department on why gender matters in prison, she's been hired to 
consult with the state.

"The sheer numbers are going to make our case for change," said Wendy 
Still, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 
official who heads the commission. "My lord, we're at 11,600 and 
climbing, and we can't just build our way out of this problem. This 
is the right thing to do."

The prison nursery concept may be jarring -- babies behind bars? -- 
but it has quietly generated the endorsement of many experts in and 
out of the criminal justice system.

Work has begun to renovate an unused wing of the California 
Institution for Women in Corona, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, 
into a 20-bed unit for expectant and new mothers and their babies. 
Warden Dawn Davison, who conceived the idea, has challenged 
supporters to get supply cribs, breast pumps, lullaby mobiles, 
onesies. By January, qualifying inmates -- those set to go on parole 
in 12 to 18 months and deemed no risk to children -- will share a 
private room with their newborns and participate in parenting classes 
and rehabilitation before both leave together.

The unit is intended to be an oasis within the barbed-wire fenced 
perimeter of the prison, a ramshackle brick campus constructed a 
half-century ago among smelly cattle yards. Today the institution 
houses about 2,300 women, from lifers in for murder to those whose 
drug addiction keeps them boomeranging back into prison on parole violations.

"I saw what was happening to my women, and how they longed for their 
babies," Davison said. "I'm a mother. And as a mother it broke my 
heart. I thought, what would happen if that bond between mother and 
baby didn't have to be broken?"

Although most babies born to inmates end up living with relatives, 
particularly grandparents, 1 in 10 goes into the foster care system. 
And simply having a parent in prison makes a child four times more 
likely to end up in prison someday -- a vicious cycle.

A few states -- including Washington and Nebraska -- already have 
prison nurseries and one, at New York's Bedford Hills, has been 
around long time. A study by corrections officials in New York found 
that inmates who went through the nursery program had half the 
recidivism rate of other female parolees. Researchers at Columbia 
University say preliminary results of a clinical assessment indicate 
all the babies are on-track developmentally.

"In the first year of life, the babies don't know that they are 
technically in a prison. What they do perceive is that they are in 
their mothers' arms," said Denise Johnson of the Center for Children 
of Incarcerated Parents, who has helped plan California's nursery.

As word spread inside the prison, several inmates offered suggestions 
for how to make the nursery idea work. One such woman was Oleta 
Simmons, who is serving her fourth prison sentence and has given 
birth to six children -- three while she was incarcerated. She 
doesn't even have newborn pictures of all of them because she didn't 
have enough money in her prison account to pay for hospital photos.

Simmons, whose convictions were all for using crack and once for 
selling it, said that after each parole, "I did what I normally did 
on the outside because that's what addicts do. We're selfish." So her 
advice was for prison officials to make supervised care after release 
mandatory for inmates applying to get into the nursery program.

"The babies aren't going to get us clean," she said. "I have six kids 
and that didn't cure me. A lot of us are kids ourselves, with a lot 
of damage inside us. So if our kids have a birthday party, part of us 
is really happy for them and part of us is sitting there saying 
"Damn, how come I never had a party like this?" We need a wide 
support system to get us through parole and life with our kids after parole.

"Bonding with our babies is important -- but it ain't enough."

Some critics have argued that society's emphasis on family 
reunification is overly optimistic, and risks placing the desires and 
needs of mothers who don't have it together ahead of their children. 
One foster mom who didn't want her name used feared subjecting 
children to a yo-yo effect, adding "what's good for incarcerated moms 
is not necessarily best for their babies."

There is resistance, too, from some who advocate placing all 
nonviolent offenders in halfway houses or on home detention with 
ankle bracelets, instead of spending a fortune warehousing them.

"I think we owe it to ourselves to ask the hard questions about why 
so many women are being locked up, and ask ourselves if these 
policies are making us safer," said Donna Willmont of Legal Services 
for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco. "I think we owe it to 
ourselves to create community-based alternatives to mass 
incarceration so that the idea of babies behind bars will shock us, 
not pacify us."

The department of corrections already contracts to transfer select 
female inmates -- fewer than 100 -- so they can finish serving their 
lockup in halfway houses alongside their young children. The 
recidivism rate for graduates of these programs is 22 percent, 
compared to a 46 percent rate for other female parolees.

One such program, based in Pomona (Los Angeles County), accepted 
Juanita Massie, and she was able to finish up her last prison stint 
there, where she could feed, bathe and care for her son Louie, now 4, 
and Evangelina, now 3. On parole, she went straight to Walden House, 
where she is completing more intensive drug treatment and fostering 
an easy rapport with her youngsters.

A giggling Evangelina takes her mother's face in her tiny hands. 
"Love you mommy," she coos. "Love you to death!"

Massie's eyes rim with tears. "People (who) saw me with my kids would 
say 'Oh, you're such a good mother.' And I'd say "No, if you only 
knew! I haven't been a good mother.

"But I'm learning to be one." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake