Prenatal Care Behind Bars
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
We visited Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison tucked in the rolling hills of Westchester County, New York. It's where New York state sends all its pregnant prisoners, and it's where the state's prison nursery is. There are only a handful of prison nurseries in this country. The United States is one of only four countries in the world that routinely take babies away from incarcerated mothers. But not at Bedford Hills. There pregnant inmates are given prenatal care and parenting classes. Their babies are born at a hospital nearby. Afterwards, some women are allowed to keep their newborns with them for up to 18 months in a special part of the prison.
Meet 26-year-old Jessica Alicia(ph). She first went to prison when she was 17. Altogether she's spent nine years in the prison system on drug charges. She was out on work release, realized she was pregnant and turned herself in on a parole violation.
Ms. JESSICA ALICIA: Because I didn't want to lose this baby. I knew that if I stayed out on the street and I would be running--I'd give birth. They'd take her away from me like I lost my other two kids.
WERTHEIMER: So you thought you'd be better off inside with the baby?
Ms. ALICIA: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: I notice that you have on your arm a lot of these little cuts.
Ms. ALICIA: Yes.
WERTHEIMER: What i--did you do that to yourself?
Ms. ALICIA: Yes. I used to go through depression when I was younger, and I used to try to hurt myself. Not to kill myself or anything; I just was angry.
WERTHEIMER: Well, will your baby have a father?
Ms. ALICIA: Well, her father right now is away in prison--in the fed. Say, `Hi, mommy. Hi.'
WERTHEIMER: In 2003, there were more than a million men behind bars in the United States, contrasted with a significantly smaller number of women: 181,000. Approximately 75 percent of these women are mothers. Most of their kids are with relatives or in foster care. The hope at Bedford Hills is to create a bond between mothers and their newborns to give the baby a better start and the mother incentive to stay straight. Inmates with long sentences won't get into the program, and certain kinds of crimes make inmates ineligible. Superintendent Ada Perez makes the final decision.
Ms. ADA PEREZ (Superintendent): The eligibility criteria is really simple: Don't bother telling me your offense. If they've been in the system it has to be ticket-free--no misbehavior reports in a year. And some individuals will give them an opportunity--we'll take a risk--small--because the risk is not only to them, it's to the other babies that are involved. If they've had other children, were any of those children removed, and if so, why? Are there any orders of protection against the mother? Some mothers I've actually met with 'cause they were right on the fence. Wasn't quite sure whether or not--and you kind of need to get a sense because, again, it's not only the program, it's the safety of the children. So I don't mind taking a risk; we're in the risk business. But I'm not--I'm only going to go so far.
WERTHEIMER: Babies have been at Bedford since 1901 when the facility was a reformatory for women. Even then it was considered progressive. Other states have modeled prison nurseries after Bedford Hills with mixed results. But children with an incarcerated parent are four times more likely to end up in prison than other children. The idea here is to interrupt that cycle.
The women have full responsibility for care of their children. They sleep two inmates and two cribs to a room--21 babies and mothers isolated from the rest of the prison. The walls are decorated with glitter and construction paper cutouts. We have to take off our shoes to enter their playroom. Thirty-year-old Amy Stone(ph) is incarcerated for grand larceny. This is not her first time in prison. Her son Jacob rolls around on her lap and swats at the microphone.
(Soundbite of baby's activity)
Ms. AMY STONE: He's six and a half months. He started to crawl at about five and a half, and he's very advanced, very advanced.
WERTHEIMER: What are you going to tell him when he starts school or when he gets old enough to kind of think about where he was born?
Ms. STONE: I'm going to tell him the truth. Kids have a way of finding things out.
(Soundbite of baby fussing)
WERTHEIMER: The median age of incarcerated women in the United States is 33, But many of the Bedford Hills mothers are younger, like 18-year-old Melissa Gonzales(ph). Her baby, Isaiah Rodriguez(ph), is just a few weeks old. She says she's been selling drugs since she was 13, but only used marijuana. She's curled up next to me on a couch with Isaiah sleeping on her chest. She's wearing sweat pants, a ponytail; there's a brush of acne on her cheeks. She turned 18 September 16th; her son was born October 4th.
Ms. MELISSA GONZALES: I'm here for transporting drugs. I was transporting drugs from country to country.
WERTHEIMER: And you got caught at the airport or something?
Ms. GONZALES: Yeah. I got caught in JFK. I was in the Dominican Republic and I had a friend, and he was telling me about transporting drugs. I asked him if I could do it. He's like, `No, you're too young. Blasa-blasa, you can't do it.' I was like, `I want to do it regardless.' Plus, it was a lot of money; it was 6,000 per keets over a year. `I want to do it.' So I was doing it for a couple of months; everything went fine. Bringing drugs from over there over here, back and forth. On March 20th I came with a girl--one of his girlfriends or something. And the officers at JFK slammed her luggage on top of a table. The metal part of the luggage popped and all the drugs came out, and I've been locked up ever since.
WERTHEIMER: And Isaiah's father's from Dominican Republic, so you were down there to see him and...
Ms. GONZALES: Yeah, I was down there to see him.
Unidentified Woman: Five minutes to go, please.
WERTHEIMER: Nursery director Bobbi Blancher(ph) believes the nursery program at Bedford Hills can help these women turn their lives around. They're on a schedule that approximates a working mother's life: up early, feed, bathe and dress the baby, then housekeeping chores, then classes or prison jobs while the babies stay in the nursery. The program offers them time with their babies, but also a safe environment for them--something they may never have experienced before.
Ms. BOBBI BLANCHER: This is probably the first time they've had a really sort of stable home in a long time. On top of that, they are becoming mothers; they're giving birth. They're discovering sometimes, and I don't mean to sound dramatic, they're discovering love sometimes for the first time in their life. The one--Melissa--the youngster that you interviewed--she just took our prenatal class and in her speech--at the end of the class they all make a speech to their child or write a letter to their child. She wrote that she was amazed that he recognized her the minute after he was born. He looked at her as though he knew who she was. That's a transformative experience, to discover that kind of love and that kind of intimacy that some of them have never had in their whole lives, even with their own parents. And I believe that that can heal and allow people to become different people, to change; you know, I believe people can change. I couldn't do this work if I didn't believe people could change.
WERTHEIMER: With us, Melissa seemed to be the most typical of teen-agers. She hates being told what to do.
Ms. GONZALES: I can't be following other people's rules, waking up at 6 in the morning to clean, going to sleep at 10:00. There's nothing to do.
WERTHEIMER: You spend all your time with the baby.
Ms. GONZALES: Mm-hmm. I'm just up here all day, and everybody's just always calling me juvenile. Everybody here's so old and I have nothing to talk about with them.
WERTHEIMER: Several prisoners we talked to painted a rosy picture of their future with their baby going to college, getting a good job, saying things prison officials like to hear. But Melissa was not one of them.
Ms. GONZALES: So I know I wasn't going to get a high-paying job; I wasn't going to be a lawyer or nothing.
WERTHEIMER: You're telling me that you think he's going to be the thing that's different. He's going to be the thing that changes your life.
Ms. GONZALES: Yeah. If it wasn't for him, I'd probably go back outside and keep selling drugs. I mean, it's way better than selling drugs when you don't get arrested than having a regular job. Instead of me making 130 a week I was making 1,500 a week. That was way better. But that was before I had him. I can't act stupid anymore.
WERTHEIMER: That, we were told, is the hard sell. Stay straight and be poor. Bedford Hills offers high school and college classes, support groups, other programs to help women keep their kids and stay out of prison. It's not cheap; roughly half a million dollars a year for all the programs involving mothers and babies. Part of the tab is picked up by Catholic Charities. Critics argue that the program is soft on crime and felons should lose their parental rights. We asked nursery director Bobbi Blancher how she perceives the success of the program.
Ms. BLANCHER: I think about our success rate every time I see a nursery mother come back here. I also think about it every time I get a phone call--I get phone calls all the time from former nursery mothers. We were their family. They call us. I get calls from women from five years ago and they don't even identify themselves. So I see both sides of it. And for some of the women who are so damaged, it's going to take a lot of interventions--maybe more than two, maybe more than three.
WERTHEIMER: Dr. Mary Byrne of Columbia University is conducting the first-ever clinical research trials on the success of the nursery program at Bedford Hills. Although she will not be finished with her research until 2007, she's found some reassuring trends.
Dr. MARY BYRNE (Columbia University): All of the babies reach their developmental milestones at least during that first year of life that we're studying them inside the prison. So the babies do as well as babies in any other setting. They are not challenged at all in any negative way. They're exactly where they should be.
WERTHEIMER: Dr. Byrne's preliminary data indicate that one year out of prison most mothers and babies are still together. Bobbi Blancher says to make that work, inmates must make the right decisions when they're first released.
Ms. BLANCHER: When you leave here, don't go back to your mother's house, your brother's house, the streets where you came from. Go somewhere where you're going to get the same kind of support you got here, where you're going to get case management, where people are going to hold your hand--because what you're doing is very hard. You're transforming yourself and you're also trying to be a parent. Our hope is to give them all a shot, 'cause a shot is a shot, right?
WERTHEIMER: The women we met hope for a better life with their children, never coming back here, several said to us. Clearly, their new lives as working mothers hoping to raise their children will not be easy. The real risk starts when these women leave Bedford with their babies in their arms.
WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.