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Raising Babies in Prison

Supporting the bond between inmates and their newborns gives these families a better start.
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Like most new moms, Erika Freeman is enchanted by her baby, nine-month-old daughter Riley. She decorated her daughter’s room in pink, with pictures of princesses and “Princess Riley” on the wall in block letters. Freeman grins when she talks about her daughter’s strong personality. “She wouldn’t eat for me. She would only eat if she could hold the spoon. It was everywhere.”

 In other ways, Freeman has little in common with most new moms. She can’t take her daughter to the park or library. She can’t take Riley to her grandparents’ house, and at certain times of the day, she can’t even take Riley down the hall to the bathroom.

Freeman is in prison at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). She is one of 12 low-level, non-violent inmates who are parenting their infants for up to 30 months behind bars in WCCW’s Residential Parenting Program (RPP). They live in the J-Unit, a housing complex surrounded by razor-wire fences in the prison’s minimum-security wing.

The J-Unit is the sort of facility you’d expect in a prison—with gray walls, pay phones, and locked doors. But the mother-baby pairs have their own rooms, painted in bright colors and furnished with beds, cribs, and rocking chairs. There’s a shared kitchen and a cheerful playroom outfitted with couches and bins of toys.

Statistics show that the majority of women successfully remake their lives. The program’s recidivism rate is 12 percent, compared to 40 percent for the general prison population.

To get into the parenting program, inmates must be pregnant at the time of admittance to WCCW. Any history of violence, crimes against a child, or sexual offenses will bar them from the program. The program is limited to 30 months, so women who will not be released within 30 months of their baby’s expected delivery are not eligible. Applicants sit before a screening committee to explain their crimes and why they want to be in the program. The stakes are high. Those who don’t get in must relinquish their babies to a family member or foster care within 36 hours of giving birth.

Freeman almost didn’t get into the program. Dressed in a gray sweatsuit, the WCCW inmate uniform, she’s a 26-year-old with blue eyes and a dimple when she smiles. She cradles a plastic coffee cup while she talks about the life that led her to prison. “I grew up in a really good home. I didn’t do drugs or anything in high school.”

After high school, Freeman attended Washington State University and got hooked on OxyContin. She soon moved on to heroin, then meth. Freeman’s parents sent her through several treatment programs, but each time she relapsed. After her most recent relapse, she met a group of addicts who taught her how to steal identities and forge checks. Freeman got pulled over while driving, and the police found fake IDs and checks in the car. She was charged with 11 felonies.

Erika and Riley photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

Erika Freeman and 2-month-old Riley in their prison room. Bonding with Riley has given Freeman hope for her own future. "It's made all the difference for me."

Photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott.

“I was pregnant, and I knew I was pregnant, and I was trying to quit the drugs. It’s shameful to think about.” She checked herself into a drug treatment program for women with high-risk pregnancies and stayed there until she came to prison. 

“They classified me into closed custody,” she explains. That’s the highest level of security at the prison; it’s on the other side of two razor-wire fences from the J-Unit. Freeman was put there because there was a felony arrest warrant for her in Oregon. This made her ineligible for the RPP.

“My little window was four inches by 20 inches or something, and I’d just kneel on my bed, and I’d be praying, and I’d look over at this unit, and I’d see the strollers coming up and down. I was eight months pregnant and then I was nine months pregnant,” she says.

Four days before Freeman’s due date, prison officials notified her that Oregon had dropped her detention order, and she was eligible to get into the RPP. “I fell to my knees and started crying. The guard thought I was going into labor. They put me in my own room and I saw this bassinet and this crib and I couldn’t have been happier. It was the best day of my life.”

Now Freeman is in therapy, and taking courses on parenting, infant development, and healthy relationships. She’s studying cosmetology, and has books on business plans stacked next to her bed. She’s determined to live differently when she leaves prison.

Sonja Alley, the supervisor of the program, works in an office scattered with toys and adorned with pictures of babies who’ve lived in the unit.  She says she’s witnessed countless inmates change after having a baby.

Although most of the women in the RPP already have children on the outside, Alley says their previous parenting experiences were different. “This is really a first-time mother-child relationship sober, so it’s more meaningful than if you’re on the streets and drugged up or abusing alcohol or not in a good social environment. You see offenders who prior to having a baby may have been kind of problematic, and after they have their child, something happens and they change.”

Some mothers in the J-Unit form close friendships. Living quarters are tight, and they share difficult and joyous moments of their lives. They participate in moms’ groups together, take parenting classes together, and play with each other’s babies. Freeman explains that some inmates at WCCW designate family roles to these supportive relationships, like “mothers,” “sisters,” and “brothers.”

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