Babies behind bars. Prison gives baby what life outside cannot: Mommy

BABIES are themselves at all times. Austin is asleep, innocence in a white blanket. Kasha is bright eyed, an ornamental blue barrette proudly erect over the little forehead. The d'ecor around here may be a trifle utilitarian, but Kasha and Austin don't notice. A baby is always at home in a mother's arms. This is an odd home for a baby, though. Kasha and Austin live with their mothers in the nursery at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison outside New York City. Bedford has the only on-site prison nursery in the United States. In the days before infant formulas, all women prisoners and their babies were kept together by necessity, but today, in most states, the child is taken away from its mother as soon as it is born, usually to live with its grandmother or in foster care. About three-quarters of the more than 28,000 women in US prisons are mothers.

Bedford Hills looks like a high school, except for the high fences and razorwire glinting in the sun. Superintendent Elaine Lord speaks of the women with kindness and concern. She explains that there are only 750 women at Bedford (most are single mothers), that this smaller size gives it a different quality, as opposed to prisons that accommodate, say, 2,000 people. There you get ``the Jimmy Cagney image; you walk onto a concrete platform and look up at the rows of cells. I think that sets a different tone. Two thousand people is a lot of people; it's a city. We still work on more of a village mentality,'' she says, laughing.

It is, however a village with walls - walls that keep people in, and eventually will keep mothers and babies apart.

The newborns - there are 24 at Bedford Hills at present - are allowed to stay with their mothers until they're one year old, although exceptions are made (up to 18 months) if the mother is due to be released soon. Yvonne Acevedo, however, will not be leaving when her baby does; she'll have several years to serve after Nicole leaves.

``This year's important to me because my daughter will know me,'' Yvonne says. ``When they bring her to visit, she'll call me mommy. Otherwise, she'll be calling someone else mommy.''

Even while Nicole is here, she lives in a strangely institutional world for an infant.

``Space is lacking; the state wasn't expecting women to have so many babies,'' Yvonne says, leading the way to the tiny room she shares with roommate Karen Reale. It is completely taken up by two beds, two cribs containing babies Nicole and Lelin, and a metal closet. Karen and Yvonne have tacked gay little stuffed animals to a metal mesh wall that blocks access to the windows.

``Let's face it,'' says Yvonne, ``it's hard enough being a criminal.... To have a baby and for the system to take away that baby, it hurts. A woman did something illegal, to live; she has a baby and society takes that baby away; what are you creating?''

``Bitterness,'' says Karen.

But they are also making the best of what is by anybody's standards a difficult dilemma: the protection of the mother/child relationship, and society's need to deal with criminals. About half the women in the prison are here for violent crimes; a third for drug-related offenses. Most of the mothers serve relatively short sentences - generally one to three years - for crimes such as theft and selling drugs. This means they can often go home with their babies, Lord says. But meanwhile, a question lingers, even the minds of the mothers: Is this any place for a baby?

While some women's rights advocates feel that a woman with an infant should not be in prison at all, many have a high regard for this unique program and the unusual number of services for women that are offered here.

The day-care center is sunny, but the floor and windows are dirty; there are toys in shelves and a rug with numbers on it in the corner. The mothers sit around a table, all pleasant young women holding their babies, who are all beautifully plump and thriving. Every so often a mother will mention how wonderful it is to have her baby with her and how grateful she is.

On the other hand, any problems one might normally have in taking care of a newborn are multiplied under these circumstances. They talk about dirt, contagion - ``If one baby gets sick, every baby gets sick'' - and that perennial of motherhood, laundry: ``If I wash things by hand, I get written up by an officer [for sanitary reasons]. You know how many kimonos I would need to get through the week? Naturally I sneak - this was the last clean one,'' says one mother.

Ann brings up the problem of cockroaches. ``I found one crawling over his head the other day. I live in plastic bags,'' she says. And the lack of fresh air: In three weeks, she says, she and Austin have been allowed outside only once. ``I was debating on sending him home.'' (A prison official says the weather was poor at the time, but that now the women and babies go out every day.)

All the mothers express concern about leaving their babies alone. Yvonne and her roommate, Karen Reale, take turns dashing down to lunch. (The babies, which are considered ``civilians,'' not inmates, cannot be taken anywhere without a prison escort, and they're not always available.) The other women have specific friends they leave their babies with. There are two sitters, but ``they are not an octopus; they only got two arms. They got five babies apiece,'' says another inmate, Karen Smith.

Yvonne says her room is too cold for her baby.

``I don't know if it's selfishness in living with my baby under these conditions, or if it's selfishness to send her home, denying her me,'' she says, slapping her chest.

``Having your baby here is wonderful, but the things that we go through,'' says Karen Smith.

Karen Smith has one daughter 6, another 5, in addition to Kasha, whom she holds on her lap. Her older daughters, living with her mother, visit her sometimes. ``They know I'm in jail; they know mommy been bad. I did something that wasn't right,'' she says. She felt it was important for her girls to understand this, because of the environment they live in, an environment where other kids say things like ```That's why you mommy in jail.'

``When they throw it in they face, they aware of it already,'' she explains. ``When I go home, I have better plans. I won't be stealin' no more. It's hard to explain to the kids. You have to keep on explaining it so they won't do the same thing that I done.''

Tiffany, Tamiko's baby, lies squirming in her lap. Tiffany had been seriously ill, but mothers are not allowed to go to the hospital with their babies.

``The nurse go,'' says Karen Smith, with feeling.

``You'll never know what is wrong with the baby; how do you treat her?'' says Tamiko.

All take as many child-rearing classes as they can. There is even a college on the grounds; Tamiko has been getting her degree. ``You're supposed to show incentive, to better yourself,'' explains Yvonne.

The prison offers a variety of family-oriented programs: transportation so children can visit, a supervised day-care center off the visiting area, a trailer where women can stay with their visiting families, and a kind of summer camp where children stay with a local family and get to see their mothers every day for a whole week. The local families usually take the same child each year and get to know the mother.

``It breaks down a lot of barriers,'' says superintendent Lord.

Nevertheless, visits from the older kids can be hard for mothers and children. Tamiko doesn't want her children to take a day from school, but weekends are jammed. She says that, the day before, her husband and children had come, but because the waiting room was crowded, their all-day visit was curtailed at 45 minutes.

``My kids waited all month to see me,'' says Tamiko.

``My kids are 10 and 12 years old. They understand [about prison]; their father been in here. I took them here [to visit] before he died. I tell them, `Don't grow up like this.'''

In return, she says, they say to her:```Mommy, when you get out, don't go out and do it again.' And I respect that.''

Tamiko says she went to the hospital to deliver Tiffany in handcuffs, but since she had a Caesarean section, she requested not to be shackled across the stomach on her return. Karen Smith said she wasn't handcuffed because ``the baby could have come out any minute.''

What brought Karen and her child to a world like this?

``Picking pockets - I've been doing it since I was 11 years old. It's the only thing I've ever mastered. I don't want to go home and start stealing,'' she says. She throws out some depressing figures about the cost of Pampers and milk versus the amount of money you get on welfare. ``The money's not enough for me and three kids. But who's gonna help me? How'm I gonna survive?''

Yvonne, with Nicole in her arms, joins us standing in the hall and explains that, while some people, like reporters, get their paychecks on schedule, criminals have to work more on a free-lance basis. When you leave prison, they give you $40 to get started on a new life.

Yvonne had her first child on a previous prison stay, after which she says ``they put me in the same neighborhood where my father [a drug dealer] was killed on the street, and told me to survive.'' She stayed with her six-month-old baby, in a welfare hotel: ``Fifty people lying on mats in one room. And I said, `It's better being in jail.'''

Karen lists a dozen different ways she could spend the $40 next time. She asks a number of times what she is going to do to survive. She says that when she gets out of prison she plans to go to the judge who sentenced her, and stand before him with her three children behind her, and ask him what she should do.

She speaks with urgency and feeling, but with very little expression on her face. As she talks, Kasha looks up, intelligent and placid, drinking in the wonders of the world. As far as she is concerned, things are the greatest. She spends her time being herself, which is just the dearest little baby.

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