Lancaster, Mass. — IN 1979 when Greer first went to MCI (Massachusetts Correctional Institution) Framingham - the state's maximum-security prison for women - an inmate who gave birth in this state usually lost custody of her baby. The process was not always conducted with the greatest diplomacy, either. As Greer describes it, she was in the hospital, having just been prepared for induced labor, when she was asked to sign a form releasing the child to the state Department of Social Services. ``Just routine,'' she was told.
``When you leave [the hospital] to go back to prison, technically that's considered abandonment,'' she says.
But Greer is a fighter.
``I said, `You might as well not even think about inducing my labor. Take me back to Framingham.'''
Then followed frantic days as she worked to get court approval to have the child placed with her sister. After that she finally gave birth - seven weeks overdue.
``The agencies used to think that because a woman is a prisoner she must also be an unfit mother. Now that has changed,'' she says.
After this experience, Greer (with another inmate who has since been released) started an organization called Aid to Incarcerated Mothers. Today AIM volunteers bring inmates' children to see their mothers every Wednesday evening. The organization also offers legal help to mothers who are dealing with custody issues.
Greer, a long-term but model inmate, is now at the Lancaster Pre-Release Center, a minimum-security prison - which means it isn't much like most people's idea of a prison at all.
Preparing to return to outside
In maximum security, inmates are locked up all the time in their cells. There is a ``secure wall'' with barbed wire and electrical monitors. Medium-security prisons vary. Usually they still have the wall, but inmates are not locked up in their cells.
In a minimum-security prison, there is neither lock nor wall. ``The real security here is in the person's mind,'' explains Marty Shaughnessy, director of programs and treatment at Lancaster.
Prisoners at Lancaster are ``the cream of the crop,'' he says. Mostly they are here for three-month stays. Lancaster is a place where inmates are prepared to return to the outside world.
Part of this training is a project - started by AIM along with a number of other agencies - called the Lancaster Pre-Release Center Visiting Cottage program. Two three-bedroom trailers are available for inmates' children to stay for a weekend or a week. Thus inmates are able to work on their mothering skills.
Most prisons have a visiting room, a linoleum area where an inmate can sit in a chair and look at her family in the company of a lot of other people. In contrast, the trailers are large, carpeted, and cozy.
The day we visited, Greer is expecting her five children. There is a pile of large plastic toys in one corner of the living room. The makings of a feast sit on the kitchen counter. A bay window looks out over the fields.
It's an opportunity for ``private communication, without my sister, without her son,'' says Greer. ``Just me and the children. They come, and it's no one but us. Three days out of a month to be a real mother, not just a figurehead. I'll say, `Let's make some plans for the future.' Of course, there aren't very many places we can go....
``If I'm going to be a parent when I get out, I have to practice those skills. I can't just say, `I'm back!' If I'm going to have any success in being a mother, I have to work my way back into their lives....''
Getting to know her youngest son, now 8, became possible for the first time.
``The only time I saw my son was for a few hours on Wednesdays. From the time he was born, I never spent any time outside prison. At first he called me his `other mother.' [When he stays in the trailer,] I have to bathe him and take care of him and take on the same role as his caretaker. He calls me `Mommy' now, and not just `Greer,''' she says.
She values family
``When I see my children now, I would love to recapture those years. I would love to have sat by their bed and nursed them - just the simple things a parent takes for granted. You don't look at that as a vital part of your own development.
``Now you say, `I wish I had those days when the baby was cryin' all night long and would keep me up.' That's what makes me feel unfit as a parent. My sister is really their mother. She has answered the role of mother in their lives.
``I can't get that time back. It makes me not feel like a parent - until I have my visit. And then I'm a parent.''
Lisa, another long-term but model Lancaster inmate, has two daughters, aged 9 and 10. She has custody of the older girl, who has recently been moved from foster care to the care of Lisa's mother, and Lisa is fighting for custody of the younger one, still in foster care.
Lisa, a gentle, round-faced woman, feels that she has changed for the better while living in a prison.
``There are good and bad people everywhere,'' she says. ``I don't believe prison rehabilitates anyone. The rehabilitation starts with yourself - recognizing what issues within yourself brought you to that point....
``I was impulsive; I'm no longer that. I was a person who didn't know how to ask for help when I was in danger. Those are changes I've seen within myself. And those are major changes.''
Her older girl stays in one of the trailers when she visits. They don't see each other as often as when Lisa lived in Framingham, which is a little more accessible than Lancaster, ``but the quality of time is richer.''
Lisa noticed an ``immediate change'' when her daughter left foster care. ``Since she's been with my mother, she's taken root and blossomed. She has a sense of where she is, and that she's loved and wanted.''
Another advantage: ``A foster mother couldn't answer background-type things: `Did my mother do this when she was a little girl?' So she gets to learn about me - which I think is real helpful.
``No one will care for your children the way you would. The grandparents come real close - 99.9 percent,'' she says. ``I trust my mother's judgment.''
Even so, there are conflicts sometimes.
Last year, Lisa bought her daughter a talking Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas. According to Lisa, this was the present her little daughter wanted most. In fact, ``She was in the I-expect-to-get-it frame of mind,'' she says.
The grandmother, however, had told the girl that the doll was too expensive: ``She said she was taking care of her, and how could she impress on her the value of money,'' Lisa explains.
Lisa and daughter have close bond
``I told my mother I could understand that. But there aren't many things I can do for my daughter. And I saved my money to buy her Christmas gifts.''
They compromised. Lisa gave the doll to her daughter in February when she came to spend a week.
``Usually a parent's a figure that guides your child,'' says Lisa. ``It's real hard to be a parent from a distance. You can verbalize your wishes. But it's real hard on the reinforcement end, because you're not there on a daily basis.''
Still, she and her daughter have a close relationship, and they enjoy their trailer visits.
``She likes the idea of making things together - making cookies,'' Lisa comments with a little laugh. ``In the wintertime she likes to slide down the hill on a sled.''
The trailer visits help keep her family together. ``It's a way to keep going. She's my strength,'' Lisa says.
``Society wants its pound of flesh,'' according to Lancaster superintendent Paul Dickhaut, who comments that ``the difference between a person doing first degree and a person doing second degree is a good lawyer.'' He says of the prisoners and the different crimes they have committed, ``If you stayed here for a year, you couldn't sort them out.''
``There is a feeling now that if they could build a space station for inmates and jet-propel us to space, that would be the community's solution,'' says Greer.
Greer is one of the few women on positive furlough status, ``but I'm afraid to take a furlough,'' she says.
``If they call my house and the line is busy, that is an infraction. There are so many people in my house. I'm not going out until my sister gets another phone.''
In this context, having the children come to visit in the trailers is helpful.
The trailers are available to every woman here unless she has lost all legal rights including visitation - or has a history of child abuse or neglect.
The visiting cottage has advantages to the administration as well as to the mother, according to superintendent Dickhaut. He describes one unusual case where a woman who didn't want her child to be adopted also didn't take advantage of the cottage program when it was made available to her.
Thus the trailers give administrators a chance to see how women function as parents. ``It's quite a laboratory, along with everything else,'' he says.
And it is cost effective. ``If we could prevent one recidivism, we could pay for this in one year.''