Mara Schiavocampo Reports: Mothers behind bars

By Mara Schiavocampo
The Grio
4/12/2010

Not only is the Ohio Reformatory for Women considered the oldest women’s prison in Ohio, it is the state’s largest female prison with 2,500 inmates. In a lot of ways it’s exactly what you’d expect.

And then, there’s the unexpected. Ohio’s prison is also home to those found guilty of no crime — nine babies. Their mothers are inmates.

In most cases, babies born in prison are whisked away within hours, to relatives or foster care, but at this facility the infants move in with mom, behind bars.

When Takaya Patterson came to the reformatory she was six months pregnant and scared. She was locked up on a theft charge, and had left behind her two-year-old daughter. She thought she’d have to part with the baby she was carrying next.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen, if my child was going to go to foster care,” said Patterson.

But at the Ohio facility, Patterson had access to the prison nursery program, allowing non-violent offenders with short sentences to raise their newborns until they’re one year old in a unit isolated from the general population. Now, Takaya’s cellmate is seven-month-old son Takeem.

“I think babies do belong with their mothers whether it’s in prison or not,” continues Patterson.

Prison officials agree, saying the goal of the nursery is to help the babies by not depriving them of a parent. The program provides everything these mothers need such as clothes and shoes, food and formula, toys and TV.

Ohio’s nursery is one of nine nationwide. More than half have opened in the last 15 years as the number of women in prison has skyrocketed to record levels, up 25 percent in the last 10 years alone.

The trend is felt especially hard in black communities where women are more likely to be the head of the household and African-American men have high rates of incarceration, as well. Almost seven percent of black children have a parent in jail, compared to less than one percent of white children.

For Treshawn, Zy-eer and Shah-sire, there’s no such thing as a quick trip to see mom Sharlene Henry and baby sister Delilah. It takes two trains, a cab and three hours to get to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York where their mother is serving seven years for criminal possession of a controlled substance. Traveling with an aunt, they make the trip twice a month.

“I just want to be close with my mom,” said Zy-eer.

Bedford Hills has the country’s oldest prison nursery and right now, seven-month-old Delilah is one of its youngest residents. Sharlene was newly pregnant when sentenced. The thought of having her baby in prison was devastating and she almost decided not to.

“I’m very anti-abortion,” said Henry. “But of course the thought is going to cross your mind because who wants to actually have a baby in prison and not be able to stay with the baby? I actually made an appointment not to have her and I couldn’t do it. I was like, no. So I kept her.”

Delilah is one of nine babies living at Bedford Hills. Here, the infants do leave their unit.
When the mothers go to mandated programs the babies go to daycare, staffed by other inmates like Shirelle Howard, serving 16 years to life for robbery. She says being with the babies is the bright spot of each day.

“I’m not a violent person,” Howard said. “I robbed and stole because I had a habit to take care of. But I’m not getting high anymore so there’s no habit to take care of. I have a habit with the babies now.”

But some argue babies don’t belong in prison and this is the wrong use of resources.
“I actually don’t think the department of corrections should be in the child rearing business,” said Karen Shain, who provides legal services for prisoners with children.”I think that they barely can do the job that they’re supposed to be doing.”

Still, several studies show women who serve their time in a prison nursery have much lower re-offense rates than other inmates.

“I think it will help me stay focused more on my family,” Patterson said, holding back tears. “It’s hard being incarcerated. When you go back into the world you know sometimes people don’t want to give you a second chance.”

Now she’s getting that second chance. This month, Patterson and her son are going to be released and will have the opportunity to strengthen the bond formed in prison.

Sharlene Henry’s happy ending won’t come for a while. On her first birthday, Delilah will have to leave Bedford Hills to go home with her siblings and aunt while Sharlene serves out the rest of her sentence.

“That’s why when we get visits it’s important,” adds Henry. “I want [my other children] to play with her, but I know she’s going to feel mommy’s not here.”

It’ll be a bittersweet moment, parting ways with her daughter, and at the same time knowing it’s the best thing for the baby.

“As much as I would love to be able to keep her here a little longer, I want her to know more than just other inmates and officers,” Henry said. “I want her to see beyond these walls.”

Delilah will finally get to know the outside world after a year spent getting to know her mom. For Sharlene and so many others like her, that makes this year of time served time well spent.

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