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."
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