VICKI BEHRENS can endure most hardships of prison life, even the gnawing loneliness she feels in a cell crammed with five other inmates and the way the prison walls press against her memories of running barefoot through cornfields as a girl.
What hurts Mrs. Behrens most is the knowledge that since her late-night arrest on April 26, 1991, her four young children have yearned for her, but she cannot hold and comfort them.
``Everyone says children can handle more than we think and they bounce back, but I know it hurts badly for them,'' Behrens said at the state prison in Dixon, Ill.
``They suffer so much.... I feel so guilty,'' she said. She has seen her children only a few times since police hustled her from her home for drug trafficking, without allowing her to awaken her children and say goodbye.
Four out of every 5 imprisoned women in the United States are mothers, and while many of them may regularly see their children, many like Behrens cannot. The children live too far from the prisons to make frequent visits or their guardians prevent visits.
The Senate passed an anticrime bill this month that recognizes that separation between mother and child is especially harmful when prison walls come between them. Under the bill the government would grant a few states a total of $8 million annually for Family Unity Demonstration Projects designed to keep convicts and their children together.
Washington would fund up to eight pilot projects in which nonviolent, male or female convicts who are the primary caregivers for children under the age of six could serve time in special prisons with their children.
``The project will make all the difference in the world in how children of inmates grow up,'' says Gail Smith, director of Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcerated Mothers.
The federal program would alleviate a wrenching ordeal for mother and child, say social workers who counsel incarcerated mothers. For mothers serving time, separation intensifies the feelings of despair that often prevail within a prison, according to the social workers. Many mothers lose their parenting skills and a sense of control over their children and household when in prison, they add. Without close, regular contact with their children, they are more likely after their release to break the law again.
For a child, long-term separation from a mother is especially devastating. Such children are more likely than ordinary children to face delinquency and homelessness, according to the social workers. Statistics compiled by the United States Justice Department suggest that they are also prone to law breaking: 37 percent of inmates in state prisons in 1991 had at least one relative who had been incarcerated.
``We've got inmates whose parents and grand-parents are former convicts; it's become a family pattern,'' says Keith Nelson, assistant warden of the Dixon Correctional Center.
The state would sooner make many convicts law-abiding by helping to strengthen families rather than breaking them up, the social workers say.
Behrens says her family needs reinforcement of any kind. Her former boyfriend will not allow her to have regular contact with their eight- and five-year-old daughters. He has claimed custody of the girls and refuses all contacts with Behrens and her family.
After Behrens's arrest, her husband's parents took in her two- and four-year-old sons. But they found the boys too taxing and soon turned them over to a children's home run by the Loyal Order of Moose. The administrators of the home refuse to allow the boys to visit their mother.
``The younger ones are scared they'll lose their mom and dad for good,'' Behrens says, clutching a snapshot of her children embracing her during their three-hour visit on Aug. 14.
``The children will always say, `I'm not sure if my mom is coming back.... I'm not going to let her go,' '' she said.