Lunch is over now, and the low table is scattered with the remnants of a children's repast -- bits of tuna fish sandwich, apples, paper cups half-filled with fruit juice. The kids are back to the serious business of playing, their attention now on Legos and Tinkertoys, blocks and paints, books and records. Some of the smaller ones are taking naps.

It looks like most day-care centers or play schools, mothers chatting quietly or tending their young ones. But there is a distinct difference. This is a prison with guards and metal detectors, body searches and high barbed-wire fences. The women here at the Federal Correctional Institution in Pleasanton, California, have all been convicted of federal offenses.

As the number of women in prisons and jails around the country continues to increase about twice as fast as the number of men, there is growing concern about the effect on their children. There are model programs, like the Pleasanton Children's Center an hour east of San Francisco, and a few others. But they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

When a mother is locked up, say prison officials and other experts, the effect on the children involved is much more devastating than when a father is sent to prison or jail.

Since women remain a relatively small percentage of the total inmate population (about 10 percent), correctional facilities for them are fewer and farther between. They usually are sent much away from home. Most women in prison have young dependent children, an average of two per inmate mother. On the other hand, less than one quarter of the children of male prisoners retain stable relationships with their fathers. In many cases, the father no longer has custody rights and has lost touch with his children.

"Fatherhood doesn't seem to transfer to prison, but motherhood always seems to come to prison with females," says Charles Turnbo, the young and affable warden here at Pleasanton. "For some reason, when a woman comes to prison, there seems to be less family support. It goes back to the old stigma that nice women [don't] get in trouble.

The children share the stigma society -- and often their own relatives -- places on their mothers. Or they may be sent to foster homes where it is hard for them to communicate with or even talk about their mothers. In the case of infants, say some experts, the important "bonding" that takes place between mother and child during the first few months after birth may never occur. With few exceptions, women who have babies while incarcerated are separated from their children very shortly after giving birth.

"I think it's extremely important to consider what's happening to the children," says Phyllis Jo Baunach, who has just completed a study of mothers in prison for the National Institute of Justice, a federal research agency. "We may be affecting another generation."

Milton Rector, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), puts it more starkly: "It guarantees . . . the possibility of children following their mothers into prison."

According to the US Bureau of Prisons, while the number of men in federal and state prisons has gone up 54 percent in the past decade, the number of women has doubled. The number of women in all US prisons and jails now is about 23,000. Many institutions for women do not record whether their inmates have dependent children (an indication of lack of concern, say some critics), but estimates range from 56 to 75 percent. With the high turnover in inmate population, the NCCD figures that as many as 250,000 children a year may be separated from their mothers this way.

The problem grows, but so do the attempts to solve it.

On Mother's Day, 1978, The Pleasanton Children's Center officially opened. Administered by the NCCD with grants from the US Bureau of Prisons and private foundations, it offers mothers here a variety of programs to help them develop and maintain relationships with their children.

There is the children's center itself, staffed by inmates, volunteers, and professional early childhood educator Louise Rosenkrantz. During a regular visiting hours (10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays) a special facility is set up for the children and their mothers in the prison's education building. It is a quiet, homelike place, much different from the regular visiting room which is "real tense . . ., a lot of people, a lot of smoke, and a lot of noise," as one mother puts it.

The program at Pleasanton also includes classes and workshops in early childhood development conducted by Yvette Lehman, professor of early childhood education at Chabot College and founder of the Children's center at Pleasanton. Women may earn a certificate of completion and credit towards an associate's degree.

Center volunteers and staff help find good foster homes near Pleasanton and arrange transportation to the prison for the children. A "Reading is Fundamental" (RIF) program has been started here, as well as a service that provides legal help for such things as custody disputes. Another offshoot of the children's center is "Shared Beginnings," a halfway house located nearby where pregnant inmates can get pre-and post-natal counseling and spend up to four months with their babies before returning to Pleasanton.

Often, children of incarcerated mothers fall through the cracks of state and local welfare systems. It can be unclear whether they come under the jurisdiction of their home town or of the community where their mother has been forced to move, and therefore easy for social services agencies to disclaim responsibility. Children's center staff members help iron out these problems, but center co-director Carolyn McCall says, "We'd like to see legislation developed that would designate these children as a special problem with special needs."

Mothers here give the program credit for helping them to stay close to their children, develop their mothering skills, and restore their self-esteem. This is important, they say, particularly since most will retain full custody of their children upon release.

"I definitely would have missed their growing up without the center," says Vivian, Whose 12-year-odl son and 8-year-old daughter visit her most weekends. "I've been a parent to those kids . . . I feel strong about that."

"The center staff has helped me learn how to be a mother," says Sheila, whose 19-month-old son, Terrell, was born at Shared Beginnings. Center volunteers helped find a foster family nearby so the baby would not have to be sent back to Washington state, where Sheila is from. "If we didn't have the center," she says, "I wouldn't ever see him."

Other women say they have also been personally strengthened by being able to make decisions about their children and then act on those decisions through the children's center facilities.

"The center has helped me gain confidence in myself, not only as a mother but in other ways as well," said Becky, who has a four-year-old son. "I have a real positive course of direction for myself now."

AS concern grows for the children of incarcerated women, other institutions are responding as well.

* At the Purdy Treatment Center for Women at Gig Harbor, Washington, children may visit their mothers any time during the day, and there are plans for a house trailer on the prison grounds so that children (and other family members as well) may spend the weekend.

Classes on child development are held in conjunction with Tacoma Community College, and inmate women run a nursery school at the facility for children from the nearby community. Dorene Buckles, who runs the program, says there is a waiting list for the school.

"We have yet to find a woman who does not care a great deal about what happens to her children," she adds.

* Similar training and visiting programs are in place in Belleview, Kentucky, at the Daniel Boone Career Development Center, a branch of the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women. The facility at Belleview provides a "parent effectiveness training" program, as well as high school equivalency courses.

Women may work at a nearby group home for children and are allowed to have their own children spend one weekend a month with them.

* At the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New york, a maximum-security prison for women, there is a "family reunion" program that provides trailers for 36-hour visits by inmates' family members. Beginning in April, Bedford Hills will also start a children's center program patterned after the one at Pleasanton. This will include family counselling for mothers and children after the women have been paroled.

* In San Jose, California, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department maintains a minimum-security women's residential center where children of pre-school age are allowed to live with their mothers, those up to age 12 may spend the weekend, and other children may visit any time.

As with all of these programs, the women in San Jose must earn these privileges by demonstrating maturity and a willlingness to improve.

"They have to want to move toward law-abiding citizenry," says Maria Black, a registered nurse who runs the 18-unit, apartment-like facility. "They can't just come here and sit. They have to have a job, be participating in vocational education, or attending a university or junior college."

Officials point out that these kinds of programs can benefit society as well as the individual mothers and children involved. "We see this as a service not only to family members who desire to remain together but also to the community, since family ties have been established as a determining factor in parole success," Dorene Buckles reported to the National Institute of Health last October.

There have also been legal efforts to establish a child's right to be with its mother, even if she is in prison or jail.

Last year, a young woman who had given birth to a daughter in the Florida Correctional Institute for Women at Lowell fought to keep her baby (named "Precious") with her. Hers was the first attempt under a 1969 Florida law allowing inmate mothers to retain custody of their newborn babies for up to 18 months. She won, and was paroled after serving two years of a 7-1/2 year sentence imposed for a $5 robbery.

A woman who gave birth to a daughter seven months after being sent to the Georgia Women's Correctional Center at Hardwick last year recently brought suit in federal court. Her baby was taken away after four days without a hearing to establish custody rights.

"The infant's certainly done nothing wrong," says attorney Edward Augustine, who is representing the mother. "There ought to at least be some sort of hearing to determine whether the state's right supersedes the right of the child to be with its mother. In essence, it means the child's been penalized for something its parent has done."

In this case, the mother is unmarried, and the child is being cared for by its maternal grandmother. Like many of these cases, this one raises questions about whether life inside a penal institution, even though with its own mother, is indeed best for a young child.

"All these things have to be weighed very carefully by any administrator," says Phyllis Jo Baunach of the National Institute of Justice. "How is a baby going to be affected if it lives in a prison for six months or a year? It's very complex and requires much more research."

In England, Germany, and Mexico, there are special facilities for imprisoned women to keep their children. Some argue that (as is the case in Sweden) mothers of dependent children should not be sent to prison or jail at all.

"The tragic thing is that very few women really need cages," says NCCD president Milton Rector.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and some state correctional departments, in any case, are expressing more interest in providing at least better visiting and support programs for inmate mothers and their children.

"They're really a hidden population," says Yvette Lehman, founder of the Pleasanton Children's Center. "As we go on, we find more and more challenges, more and more unmet needs."

It's mid-afternoon now and time for the kids to leave the children's center at Pleasanton. Twelve-year-old Kevin has just proudly told his mother that he got the best mark in the class on a test. And, yes, he'll be sure to wear a helmet when he rides his motorbike.

Vivian walks out toward the gate with her son. He runs ahead, then turns and shouts, "Goodbye, Mom . . . I love you."

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