Raising Babies in Prison

Supporting the bond between inmates and their newborns gives these families a better start.

Photos by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott.

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.

Become a Monthly Donor

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.

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.”

Misty photo by Cheryl Hanna-Truscott

Misty at 9 months pregnant.

Some prison nursery programs discourage inmates from forming these kinds of close, family-like relationships, because officials fear that forming friendships with other women with drug or criminal histories will negatively influence an inmate’s rehabilitation. But Marie-Celeste Condon, who is studying the women and babies in the RPP for her doctoral dissertation says, “Our data is showing the opposite. What we’re finding is that people do change and are capable of persevering in incredible odds, and they need the support of other people.”    

Statistics show that the majority of women who go through the RPP successfully remake their lives. The program’s recidivism rate—released inmates who end up back in prison—is 12 percent, compared to 40 percent for the general WCCW population. Rehabilitating inmates and reducing recidivism are important goals of the corrections system, but the RPP’s main focus is on the babies.

The prison system divides and breaks down families. When a parent goes to prison, families often suffer financial hardship, become socially isolated, and break up. Sometimes family members can’t visit inmates, because they are in prisons in remote areas inaccessible by public transportation.

More than two million American children have a parent in prison. These kids frequently grapple with depression, hyperactivity, aggression, withdrawal, regression, clinginess, sleep problems, eating disorders, truancy, poor grades, and drug abuse. Older female children are more likely to be teen mothers, and boys have a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency. A report by the Department of Human Services says children of prisoners are “seven times more likely to go to jail than children whose moms or dads have not served time behind bars.”

“We’re really trying to stop that cycle,” explains Alley.

Infants may face even worse odds than most children of inmates if they don’t get the opportunity to bond with their mothers. A body of research, commonly referred to as attachment theory, shows that a secure attachment between mother and baby in the first years of life lays the groundwork for a child’s further development.

 “Everything babies learn about themselves, relationships, and the world is learned from the perspective of their early attachment relationships,” explains Condon, a specialist in infant mental health and development.

This is what prompted the Washington Department of Corrections to start the RPP in 1999. The hope was that supporting the bonds between inmates and their newborns would give some of the most vulnerable children of inmates a better start in life. The prison’s Early Head Start center is where the babies stay while their moms are in class or working. The center’s developmental assessments show that babies thrive in the program.

Condon has plans for a longitudinal study of the mothers and babies in the program, to measure how babies like Riley fare as they get older.

Freeman doesn’t need the research to convince her of the RPP’s merits. “This program has been such a blessing,” she says. “Riley is absolutely thriving, ever since the beginning. She’s very interested, very observant and outgoing.”

Bonding with Riley has given Freeman hope for her own future. “Sometimes I just come to tears thinking, ‘How could I love someone so much?’ It’s made all the difference for me.” She’s on the council of a group called The Village, which creates supportive relationships between inmates, and plans to use what she’s learned after release.

“I want to start an organization to help girls not end up where I did,” says Freeman. She hopes to visit juvenile detention facilities, treatment centers, and schools to talk to young girls and provide support and mentors.

“Someone told me one time not to waste good pain. I think I’ve had enough, and I think I have enough to benefit other people.” Most importantly, Freeman says, “I just want to be the best mom I can be.”