Behind bars again

    Like a habitual offender, I found myself behind bars again.

    Today, I went to the state’s women’s prison to interview pregnant inmates. As anyone who’s read Unlawful Contact knows, women in prison has been a topic of interest for me for a very long time.

    Back in 1997, I spent 24 hours as an inmate in the county jail in an effort to learn more about the experience women face while incarcerated. You can read all about that here.

    Since then, I’ve covered incarcerated women's issues from lots of different viewpoints, including reporting on a woman who lost her baby after guards neglected her when she went into labor. (Unlawful Contact is dedicated to the memory of her baby.)

    This time, my focus was strictly on the health care pregnant women receive while in state prison. (Note: "Prison" and "jail" are not interchangeable terms. Prisons are run by the federal government or the state, while jails are run by cities and counties. Long sentences are served in prison, while minor sentences are served in jails, generally speaking. Lifers go to prison, not jail.)

    When I first arrived, the guard at the front desk didn’t have me listed in his computer as being approved for a visit — a mistake that took about 20 minutes to correct. I know from experience what to bring and what not to bring to prison, so they searched my purse and had to remove nothing. Then I was escorted back to the medical unit, which was very busy.

    While there, I was able to interview several pregnant inmates — one who is only three weeks away from her due date — and an inmate who gave birth to a little boy last Thursday.

    Most of the women I spoke with were in prison for drug offenses — possession and use of illegal drugs, including meth. One was there for having gone joy riding in a stolen car after a drinking binge with friends. Yeah, not a good decision.

    For all of them, the worst part of having a baby in prison was (or will be) having to give up the baby shortly after birth. The woman who'd had her baby last week got to hold her son for five hours and was then taken down to a locked ward, where she stayed overnight. The next day she was brought back to prison. She hasn't seen her baby since the day he was born.

    Personally, I can’t imagine enduring that. I could barely let go of my babies when they were newborn, even to let their grandparents hold them. Having to give them up... Well, that’s one good reason to stay out of prison.

    One of the pregnant women hoped to give her baby into the care of a community of Mennonites, who have taken on the very selfless and loving task of raising the children of female inmates while the children’s mothers do time. State law allows people to seek to adopt children who are in foster care for more than a year, so a woman with kids who is sentenced to a few years behind bars is probably going to lose custody of her kids forever — a situation that causes extreme depression and heartache for these women. The Mennonites, however, take these babies and children into their families, raise them as their own, bring them to visit their mothers and do everything they can to support bonding between mothers and children. They even help mothers get jobs and help them transition into parenting.

    God bless the Mennonites!

    But for all the difficulties and discomfort, there are sometimes positive aspects to being pregnant in prison. For women who's lives are in shambles, prison can be a shelter from the more horrible aspects of their lives — drugs, prostitution, boyfriends and husbands who abuse them and so on. One pregnant mother told me that she'd used drugs during a previous pregnancy but that because she was in prison, she's been clean and feels for the first time that she's bonding with her baby.

    The practitioners I met — nurses, assistants, and others — were extremely caring and kind. It reminded me why some woman inmates deliberately try to find reasons to go to the medical unit — they feel cared for there.

    Any time I interview offenders or visit a prison or jail, I am amazed at how off-track some people’s lives can get. The lives of women in prison are a mix of tragedies and very bad choices. A night of drinking. Hooking up with the wrong boyfriend. Turning to drugs to deal with the pain of past violence. The inability or unwillingness to see to take responsibility for one’s life.

    You'd be surprised — astonished, really — to see the connection between childhood violence, including incest and sexual assault, and criminality in women. There’s also a big connection between women’s boyfriends/husbands and criminality. Men tend to drag the women in their lives into their criminal actions. For example, a man might beat someone up on a drug deal gone bad while his girlfriend sits in the car... And then she’s also charged.

    Wow, I'm really rambling here, aren’t I?

    All of the interviews today are going to be part of an article focused on pregnant women in prison. I still have additional interviews to do, but after months (and months) of trying to schedule this prison visit, I’m happy to have gotten this far.

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