In Ohio, Inmate Mothers Care For Babies In Prison Women are currently the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the United States. The Ohio Reformatory for Women meets this expanding population's unique set of demands with an in-house nursery.
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In Ohio, Inmate Mothers Care For Babies In Prison

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In Ohio, Inmate Mothers Care For Babies In Prison

In Ohio, Inmate Mothers Care For Babies In Prison

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. We're going to find out more this week about one of the rapidly growing populations in America. It's the number of people behind bars.

INSKEEP: We already know from a recent study that of every 100 Americans, one is in custody. What's been surprising to us is to learn just who some of those people are. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The study actually concluded that more than 1 in 100 American ADULTS is in jail or prison.]

MONTAGNE: They include the mentally ill. And later this week on MORNING EDITION, we're going to visit a county jail that incarcerates and treats thousands of them.

INSKEEP: The prison population also includes an awful lot of drug addicts, and we're going to visit a state this week that would rather send them to treatment.

MONTAGNE: And the number of women in prison is growing fast, so we begin with a visit to one institution to find out how it's handling the special challenges of female prisoners.

INSKEEP: Many of those women are mothers, as we're going to hear. They're at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, where an employee named Jeanette Stewart took us across a complex so large, we traveled in a golf cart.

Ms. JEANETTE STEWART (Employee, Ohio Reformatory for Women): This right here was the original building here on the facility - 1910 if I am not mistaken. It was a children's home originally, before it became a prison.

INSKEEP: Now, several buildings hold about 2,300 women.

Unidentified Woman #1: Right now, you can send me to the hole. I hate it.

INSKEEP: That's the sound of some prisoners we saw in improvised bunk rooms that are converted from office space. We also met the warden, Sheri Duffey, who told us more prisoners are on the way.

Ms. SHERI DUFFEY (Warden, Ohio Reformatory for Women): If you look out over the compound, we've got a 1,000-bed, two-story dormitory being built.

INSKEEP: What challenges, as prisoners, do women pose that are any different from men?

Ms. DUFFEY: Their needs are different. Their needs are different mentally, physically. I think you know somebody that was sexually abused, physically abused, domestic violence...

INSKEEP: How does someone who's been physically abused or sexually abused or a victim of domestic violence end up here?

Ms. LAURIE ANNE CASSIDY(ph) (Inmate, Ohio Reformatory for Women): Where to begin? I come from a very abusive home.

INSKEEP: This answer comes from Laurie Anne Cassidy, who spent the past 20 years in Ohio's prisons.

Ms. CASSIDY: My father was very abusive. And shortly after his death, finding out more of the abuse that he went through with my grandmother, you really see things. Now you understand more of why my father more or less abused myself, my mother. It was like a tag-team match in my home.

INSKEEP: You said before he died.

Ms. CASSIDY: I'm here for his death.

INSKEEP: You killed him when you were 18 years old. In your home?


INSKEEP: We looked up old court records in this case, which say that Cassidy hired a man to have her father killed. She collaborated with her mother, who is now in this same prison.

A defense lawyer told the judge of Cassidy's claim she was abused, but she pleaded guilty to aggravated murder and got a life sentence. She has a job in prison, Renee. She stitches American flags.

MONTAGNE: Oh, that's quite an image. It makes you wonder how it affects America to have more and more women in prison.

INSKEEP: That's something I was thinking about when I asked the warden, Sheri Duffey, this question:

Of the prisoners that you have here, what percentage of them, as best you can determine, are mothers?

Ms. DUFFEY: Wow. I'm going to say definitely above 75 percent.

INSKEEP: So all these thousands of people who are found guilty affect children who are innocent, and the reformatory is now offering parenting classes for many of the women.

Unidentified Woman #2: Like we do in most classes, we're going to start off with asking you to think about the communication you have in your family that you grew up in. Did you have somebody at home that was there for you, that was available?

INSKEEP: And in a few cases, Renee, this prison makes inmates available to their children, even though the inmates are behind bars.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Unidentified Woman #3: What are you saying?

INSKEEP: Hundreds of Ohio inmates report to prison pregnant, or as the mothers of newborns.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Unidentified Woman #3: Tell mommy what?

MONTAGNE: And Steve, is that one of those newborns?

INSKEEP: Yes. We had a visit to the prison nursery, because Ohio is one of a small-but-growing number of states that lets some of the newborns live in prison. A dozen infants began their lives behind coils of razor wire. They'll learn to crawl on the floor of a special prison wing.

The mothers wear identical blue uniforms, Renee, and they rock their children in identical wooden chairs.

Ms. KRISTIN KENNEDY (Inmate, Ohio Reformatory for Women): My name is Kristin Kennedy. I'm 28, and I'm from Zanesville, Ohio. My baby's name is Tabian(ph).

INSKEEP: Kennedy told us that she was pregnant with her third child on the day that she reported to prison.

Ms. KENNEDY: I made some bad decisions. I had some weed in my purse, and I got pulled over, and they found it and charged me with trafficking.

INSKEEP: Why did they charge you with trafficking and not just possession?

Ms. KENNEDY: Because it was in separate bags.

INSKEEP: Were you actually going to sell it?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. Not all of it, but yeah.

INSKEEP: Kennedy's husband is also in prison on a drug charge, and her two older children are being cared for by relatives now. On the day we met her, she was missing her daughter's third birthday. Kennedy's infant lives with her in her cell and sits on her lap when the local public librarian comes to the nursery for story time.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Starting out together, babies in your lap.

INSKEEP: This is a room in prison where colorful murals cover the walls, Big Bird holding a teddy bear, that sort of thing.

MONTAGNE: Well, you said, Steve, a dozen infants are in that nursery. Do all the prisoners with newborns end up there?

INSKEEP: No, not at all. They only want non-violent offenders to be in this nursery, and they only want women serving a relatively short sentence. The warden, Sheri Duffey, does not want infants in there too long.

Who are you trying to help there? The child? The mother?

Ms. DUFFEY: Everyone. The child, the mother, society. It maintains that bond that the mother and child has.

INSKEEP: Somebody listening to this might say, come on, you've got a mother who was pregnant and did something bad enough to get into this institution. The odds of finding somebody who should even be taking care of a kid under those circumstances might be kind of low. I could imagine someone making that argument to you.

Ms. DUFFEY: You're right. Someone might make that argument, and I'll turn around and say she may be in here for theft, writing bad checks, unable to meet the financial responsibilities on the outside, and so she does need our help. And then she needs our guidance on being a mother.

INSKEEP: We should tell you that research is limited on this next point, but there is a small study in another state that gives hope that prison nurseries might make mothers less likely to commit another crime and end up back in prison.

We sat down with two of the mothers in Ohio's prison nursery. One of them is Kristin Kennedy, that mother we've already heard who was caught with marijuana. The other is Sheirra Haines. She says a firearms charge put her in here along with her infant. They may have had chaotic lives on the outside, but the routine in here never changes.

Ms. SHEIRRA HAINES (Inmate, Ohio Reformatory for Women): I'll get him up and change his diaper, get him dressed, read, play, take him outside for a walk. By 11 o'clock count, they'll be ready for their nap again.

INSKEEP: She said 11:00 count. Kristin Kennedy and Sheirra Haines and their babies report to their cells for their roll call.

How soon do you get out of here?

Ms. KENNEDY: In March.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about the situation you're in. You're going to have a criminal record. You have three kids to take care of. Your husband, will he still be in prison at that point?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. He got five years.

INSKEEP: And when he gets out, he'll have a criminal record.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: How would you rate your chances?

Ms. KENNEDY: Not very good. And in Zanesville, there's no jobs, anyway. So I plan on going back to school, finishing my education.

Ms. HAINES: I plan on going home and getting a job. I got a good support system. My mom and my daddy help me until I get where I need to be. It's going to be hard, but I can do it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You're working out together, now hop, hop, hop.

INSKEEP: That's the sound of that story time at the Ohio's Women's Reformatory. And during that story time, I happened to look out the window and saw rows of women in blue. These are hundreds of women lined up in the prison yard. They were the newest arrivals, I was told, and they were preparing to march away to the early lunch hour. And these women started walking on command. They're some of the thousands filling America's prisons, a little more every year.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Now the song is over, so hop, hop, hop.

INSKEEP: This is the start of a MORNING EDITION series on who's in prison.

MONTAGNE: And tomorrow, I'll take you to a county jail that doubles as what the sheriff himself calls the biggest mental institution in the country. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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