Rais­ing ba­bies be­hind bars

In­mates forge a mother’s bond in the only home their in­fants know: Pri­son

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JUSTIN JOUVENAL

de­catur, ill. — Des­tiny Doud thought she had just 48 hours to be a mother.

Like most of the hun­dreds of preg­nant women who give birth while serv­ing time each year, Doud was slated to give up her new­born to a rel­a­tive just days af­ter the baby was born last May.

Doud re­called hug­ging Jae­lynn close at the hospi­tal, wav­ing off nurses’ offers to take the girl to the nurs­ery. She wanted ev­ery minute to hold her daugh­ter ahead of that wrench­ing sep­a­ra­tion.

But just be­fore hand­ing off the baby to her own fa­ther, Doud learned she had qual­i­fied for a rad­i­cal al­ter­na­tive. She could raise Jae­lynn be­hind bars.

On June 2, 2017, Doud cra­dled her new­born as she passed through a chain-link fence topped with ra­zor wire, through heavy steel doors to a cell out­fit­ted with a crib. A sign on the door reads: “Doud: Y21214 Baby: Jae­lynn.”

De­catur Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter is the only home the girl with wispy blond hair and ice-blue eyes has known in her 11 months.

Pri­son nurs­ery pro­grams re­main rare na­tion­wide, but eight fa­cil­i­ties in as many states have opened them amid dra­matic growth in the num­ber of in­car­cer­ated women. The bold ex­per­i­ment in pun­ish­ment and par­ent­ing has touched off a fierce de­bate.

Ad­vo­cates say the pro­grams al­low moth­ers to forge a cru­cial early bond with chil­dren, creat-

ing health­ier kids and a spur for moth­ers to im­prove their lives. De­trac­tors say pri­son is no en­vi­ron­ment for chil­dren and that the pro­grams may sim­ply put off an in­evitable split be­tween many chil­dren and their moth­ers, making it that much more painful.

Doud and Jae­lynn are among dozens of test cases.

Doud faces a daunt­ing road back to rou­tine fam­ily life. At 21, she is serv­ing a 12-year sen­tence for bring­ing metham­phetamine across the Illi­nois state line. She is try­ing to tame a drug ad­dic­tion and fig­ure out a ca­reer with only a high school di­ploma. She’s al­lowed to send Jae­lynn’s fa­ther baby photos, but he too is in pri­son.

Still, she said the pro­gram has given her fledg­ing fam­ily a lifeline — one she in­tends to seize. Doud, whose own mother was in and out of jail when she was a child, said she is de­ter­mined to make sure a third gen­er­a­tion of her fam­ily does not end up in­car­cer­ated.

“She re­minds me that I have some­thing that’s great now,” Doud said, smil­ing at Jae­lynn in De­catur’s nurs­ery. “Some­thing to live for.”

Ba­bies be­hind bars

At the end of a hall­way on a spe­cial wing, the drab, in­sti­tu­tional walls of this min­i­mum­se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity erupt in a riot of col­or­ful mu­rals: Chil­dren play on a jun­gle gym, a bright sun beats down on a church, and a yel­low school bus chugs along.

Hand-drawn por­traits of chil­dren hang nearby, and tiny hand­prints climb up a column at the cen­ter of a large room. In­fants gig­gle, slum­ber in their mother’s arms and strain to turn over in play gyms.

It’s easy to mis­take for a day care — that is, un­til the uni­formed pri­son guards be­gin their rounds.

Wel­come to the Moms and Ba­bies pro­gram.

Six women and their in­fants, ages new­born to 11 months, live in the unit, which is seg­re­gated from the pri­son’s gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. Each pair’s home is a typ­i­cal cell, spe­cially out­fit­ted with cribs, chang­ing ta­bles and additional lively mu­rals.

De­catur’s war­den, She­lith Hans­bro, said the cells are not barred and women are not hand­cuffed on the wing be­cause it can dis­tress the chil­dren, even as young as they are. Still, se­cu­rity re­mains paramount.

Cam­eras are perched above each crib. The pri­son doesn’t house sex of­fend­ers. And when a child is taken out­side the nurs­ery unit, all pris­on­ers are or­dered to stop moving about the fa­cil­ity and re­main where they are. The chil­dren can play out­doors in a pri­son yard retro­fit­ted with a jun­gle gym.

There are strict cri­te­ria for se­lect­ing par­tic­i­pants. The women must have only non­vi­o­lent of­fenses on their records and typ­i­cally have sen­tences that are two years or less, so mother and child never have to be sep­a­rated and the chil­dren’s time in pri­son is lim­ited to their ear­li­est years. Though Doud’s sen­tence is longer than most women in the pro­gram, she could qual­ify to serve some of that in a res­i­den­tial drug treat­ment cen­ter.

There are coun­selors and a child aide to help the moth­ers, and other in­mates at the fa­cil­ity serve as day-care work­ers so the women can at­tend classes to get GEDs, im­prove life skills, and re­ceive drug and al­co­hol coun­sel­ing. Hans­bro said the ap­proach is com­pas­sion­ate, but also tough.

“We tell them we are going to be up in your busi­ness,” Hans­bro said. “We are going to be telling you things about how to raise your child that you might dis­agree with.”

On a Mon­day morn­ing in April, Doud and the other moms gath­ered in a cir­cle with their ba­bies perched on their pris­onis­sued blue scrubs. Led by a vol­un­teer, each took turns read­ing pas­sages from “The Vel­veteen Rab­bit.”

Christine Duck­witz, 30, cra­dled 2-month-old Is­abelle and turned the pages. The mother from ru­ral Illi­nois was caught with heroin last year. Is­abelle’s fa­ther over­dosed and died on Christ­mas Eve, just a month be­fore the girl was born.

LaTonya Jack­son, 38, read to 5-month-old Olivia, who was decked out in a Min­nie Mouse out­fit, with a black bow on her head. The girl’s brother, the el­dest of eight, was gunned down in a drug-deal-turned-rob­bery in St. Louis soon af­ter Jack­son ar­rived at De­catur for a theft con­vic­tion.

Such tur­moil is com­mon in the lives of the women, Hans­bro said. Things as sim­ple as read­ing books to chil­dren some­times fall by the way­side. Other moth­ers have never had such rudi­men­tary par­ent­ing them­selves, so the pro­gram be­gins with the ba­sics.

“We have found that if there is going to be any­thing that keeps women from re­of­fend­ing, it’s going to be their bonds with their chil­dren,” Hans­bro said. “If we ex­pect them to be suc­cess­ful, we need them to give them those tools they need to be suc­cess­ful.”

The read­ing ses­sion ended with the vol­un­teer ask­ing the women what the moral of the story was.

“What’s the les­son?” the woman asked. “That love makes you real?”

As the women an­swered and talked, Jae­lynn tot­tered off un­steadily and grabbed a ball, be­fore plop­ping over. Some of the women burst into laugh­ter. Jae­lynn had taken her first steps that week.

“She can barely walk, but she thinks she can run,” Doud said proudly.

The bust

In Oc­to­ber 2016, Doud and her boyfriend were speed­ing down an Illi­nois high­way with 104 grams of metham­phetamine they planned to sell. She no­ticed po­lice cars stream­ing to­ward them in the on­com­ing lanes.

“Right then, I knew we were going to pri­son,” Doud said. “I told my boyfriend, ‘I love you; I’ll miss you.’ ”

Doud and Jae­lynn’s soon-to-be fa­ther were charged with meth traf­fick­ing, the re­sult of a drug habit that spi­raled out of con­trol.

Doud’s sit­u­a­tion soon grew more des­per­ate. She said she woke in the middle of the night, sick to her stom­ach, nine days af­ter her ar­rest. The jail nurse gave her a preg­nancy test. Doud was stunned by the re­sults.

“She said, ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions!’ ” Doud said. “I was like, ‘No, this is not pos­i­tive. I’m going to pri­son.’ ”

There are no cur­rent fig­ures for how many women give birth while in­car­cer­ated, but the growth in pri­son nurs­eries is play­ing out against the back­drop of a mas­sive in­crease in in­car­cer­ated women in re­cent decades, in­clud­ing moth­ers.

The num­ber of women be­hind bars in­creased more than 700 per­cent be­tween 1980 and 2016, from roughly 26,000 to nearly 214,000, ac­cord­ing to the Sen­tenc­ing Project. The growth out­paced the in­crease in male in­car­cer­a­tion by roughly 50 per­cent.

The lat­est sta­tis­tics on par­ents in pri­son are from 2007, but the Jus­tice De­part­ment re­ported a 122 per­cent in­crease in moth­ers in state and fed­eral pri­son be­tween 1991 and that year. Nearly 1.7 mil­lion chil­dren had a par­ent be­hind bars.

Some ex­perts at­tribute the in­crease in women’s in­car­cer­a­tion, in both jail and pri­son, to spik­ing drug ar­rests and an em­pha­sis in some ar­eas on ag­gres­sive en­force­ment of mi­nor of­fenses such as theft and pub­lic drunk­en­ness.

The trends have pushed of­fi­cials and re­form­ers to fo­cus on mass in­car­cer­a­tion’s im­pact on women and chil­dren, as then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Loretta E. Lynch put it in 2016: “When we in­car­cer­ate a woman, we of­ten are truly in­car­cer­at­ing a fam­ily.”

A num­ber of states have done away with the com­mon prac­tice of shack­ling preg­nant women dur­ing child­birth, while oth­ers have moved to re­quire pris­ons to have med­i­cal plans, proper nutri­tion and other ba­sics avail­able for preg­nant women. Pri­son nurs­eries are one of the most pro­gres­sive ap­proaches. But not ev­ery­one is on board. Some ad­vo­cates for fe­male pris­on­ers ar­gue moth­ers with low-level of­fenses should be al­lowed to raise their chil­dren in less re­stric­tive set­tings.

On the other side, James Dwyer, a pro­fes­sor of law at Wil­liam & Mary who fo­cuses on chil­dren and fam­ily is­sues, said many of the moth­ers are not good long-term prospects as par­ents, that pris­ons are dan­ger­ous and un­stim­u­lat­ing for chil­dren, and that it may even be un­con­sti­tu­tional to place a child in pri­son when no crime has been com­mit­ted.

He said the pro­grams also don’t take a con­sid­ered ap­proach to making hard de­ci­sions about what’s best for chil­dren in chal­leng­ing fam­ily sit­u­a­tions.

“There is no in­volve­ment of child pro­tec­tive ser­vices or ju­ve­nile court,” Dwyer said. “You just have pri­son war­dens or their del­e­gates de­cid­ing that a kid should en­ter into a pri­son with­out making any best-in­ter­est de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

‘We all we got’

Doud even­tu­ally pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of meth de­liv­ery. She was sen­tenced to 12 years in pri­son but is el­i­gi­ble for pa­role as soon as 2022. Jae­lynn’s fa­ther got a lengthy sen­tence for meth traf­fick­ing.

Jae­lynn was born on May 30. Doud said get­ting into the pri­son nurs­ery pro­gram was a re­lief, but she was also anx­ious as she headed to De­catur: What ef­fect would pri­son have on Jae­lynn?

When she ar­rived, she said the other women in the pro­gram had dec­o­rated her cell and made her a gift pack­age of di­a­pers, wipes and lo­tion.

“It was like my own shower,” Doud said.

Doud and the other women said they be­lieve their chil­dren are bet­ter off with them in pri­son and that their chil­dren have not suf­fered ad­verse ef­fects be­hind bars. But there are chal­lenges.

There are no trips to grand­mother’s house, no out­ings to the zoo or story time at the li­brary. The chil­dren are al­lowed to leave the pri­son only to at­tend pe­di­a­tri­cian ap­point­ments, although fam­ily mem­bers can make weekly vis­its to the fa­cil­ity.

Jack­son said she re­called tak­ing Olivia into the pri­son yard one day and the girl tast­ing the air, as if it were some­thing new and strange.

The women have forged their own patch­work fam­ily and spend a lot of time trad­ing par­ent­ing sto­ries, tips and jokes in the cen­ter of the nurs­ery. As some­one scrawled on a post: “We all we got.”

Largely cut off from friends and fam­ily, Doud said those con­nec­tions are es­pe­cially im­por­tant for her, as a first-time mom. She said she has a never-end­ing stream of ques­tions: When would Jae­lynn’s teeth come in? How do you treat di­a­per rash?

Duck­witz, who has three other chil­dren on the out­side, said the pro­gram helps women “learn how to be a good mom — an op­por­tu­nity they wouldn’t have on the out­side.”

Doud is tak­ing ev­ery class she can at De­catur and has re­mained sober. In Jan­uary, Jae­lynn watched as Doud grad­u­ated from her sub­stance-abuse class. Doud said Jae­lynn also ap­pears to be hit­ting her de­vel­op­ment marks, even reach­ing many early.

Be­cause Doud has a longer sen­tence than most women in the pro­gram, she is hoping she will be per­mit­ted to fin­ish the last two years at a res­i­den­tial drug treat­ment pro­gram in Chicago. Jae­lynn could live with her.

More than 90 women have gone through the Moms and Ba­bies pro­gram in 11 years, and only two have re­turned to pri­son within three years of re­lease, ac­cord­ing to the Illi­nois De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions. Only two women have been re­moved from the pro­gram.

Re­search on pri­son nurs­ery pro­grams is lim­ited, but some stud­ies show sim­i­lar prom­ise. One found that a group of preschool-age chil­dren who were raised in pri­son nurs­eries were less anx­ious and de­pressed than a con­trol group of chil­dren who were sep­a­rated from their in­car­cer­ated moth­ers in the early years. An­other con­cluded the re­cidi­vism rate of moth­ers who par­tic­i­pated in pri­son nurs­ery pro­grams was only 4 per­cent.

Doud and Jae­lynn still have a long way to go be­fore be­com­ing one of these pos­i­tive sta­tis­tics, but Doud’s fa­ther said he’s no­ticed a change in his daugh­ter. He is cau­tiously op­ti­mistic for them.

“In the long run, this might be the best thing that hap­pened to her,” James McQuinn said. “It got her out of her life.” baby

“She re­minds me that I have some­thing that’s great now. Some­thing to live for.”

Des­tiny Doud, on rais­ing her 11-month-old daugh­ter, Jae­lynn

WHITNEY CUR­TIS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Des­tiny Doud talks to her daugh­ter, Jae­lynn, at De­catur Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in Illi­nois. Doud, who is serv­ing a 12-year sen­tence for a non­vi­o­lent drug of­fense, has raised her since birth in the pri­son, which has added vi­brant mu­rals and even a jun­gle...

Moth­ers and their chil­dren have ac­cess to play­ground equip­ment at De­catur Cor­rec­tional Cen­ter in Illi­nois. Each in­fant sleeps in a crib in the mother’s pri­son cell.

PHOTOS BY WHITNEY CUR­TIS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Christine Duck­witz holds her 2-month-old daugh­ter, Is­abelle, at the pri­son. Duck­witz said she’s learn­ing “how to be a good mom.”

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