A Helping Hand for Inmate Moms

When she learned she was pregnant, Cheryl was on the run from aprison sentence for possession of cocaine. She had already sufferedtwo miscarriages. But this time she was sure it would be different."I wanted the baby more than I wanted anything," says Cheryl, whoasked that her last name not be used. "I quit getting high. About thetime I was going to turn myself in, someone turned me in." Two monthspregnant, she was back in court where the judge added a one-yearprison sentence to what had originally been four years of communityservice and six months at a halfway house. Cammie Churches' story isn't much different. She too was a cocaine addict who hadwalked away from a sentence at a halfway house. Churches had justbeen picked up on escape charges when she learned she was pregnant.Both Churches and Cheryl were in the county jail awaiting transfer tothe Colorado Women's Correctional Facility (CWCF) when they learnedabout Lydia and Enos Mulletts. Neither women likes to consider whatmight have happened without them. "They gave me so much hope," Churches recalls. "Just knowing they cared changed my life." TheMulletts are founding members of a Mennonite organization called NewHorizons Ministry in Westcliffe, Colorado, that cares for the babiesof women inmates. The Mulletts and other Mennonites, whose religionemphasizes pacifism and service, nurture the children in their homesand encourage contact with the mother. The goal is to help mother andbaby bond. Normally, babies are taken away from female prisoners soonafter birth and placed in foster homes by the social welfare system,sent to relatives or put up for adoption. Mothers may not see theirchildren until after they serve their term, which may be a matter ofmonths or years.Without the Mulletts, Churches believes that her son, Cody, wouldhave ended up in foster care. "It was really scary. The only option Ithought I had was social services -- and that can be a nightmare."She's also grateful someone believed in her. "When you're inprison they already figure you're an unfit mother. It takes a lotmore to prove yourself." New Horizons actively supports the mothersand works to give them an incentive to stay out of prison, says LydiaMulletts. "We can help the babies. But if we don't include themothers, the babies will go through the same cycle as the mothers,"she says. Now three years old, New Horizons began when the Mulletts,who had just relocated to Westcliffe, learned that a woman inmate atthe CWCF was about to give birth. But there was no one to care forthe infant. One month later, the Mulletts picked up the day-old babyboy, the son of an inmate who had 10 other children. Since that dayin April 1992, they and other members of New Horizons have cared for25 children. The children are taken to visit their mothers once aweek and the mothers are encouraged to call. All expenses are paidfor by the individual Mennonite families with assistance from theministry. Eventually, the Mulletts hope to open a halfway house,where mothers could complete the last six months of their sentenceswith their children, learning the skills of motherhood. Their plansalso include starting an enterprise that would allow the women toearn money and gain job experience. The New Horizons program is atimely one, considering how many women offenders fill cells each yearin the United States. Reports from the U.S. Department of Justicereveal that the number of women in federal prisons rose from 1,842 in1984 to 6,516 in 1994. Helen Butler, a spokesperson for thedepartment, said the majority are non-violent, first-time drugoffenders. According to a report from the Colorado Department ofCorrections, one in four women is pregnant or postpartum at the timeof incarceration. The women are usually not married and have littleor no contact with the baby's father. Many have no family to takecare of the child once it is born, and have no choice but to turn itover to social welfare services. One CWCF inmate remembers how shealmost put her child up for adoption. Before the baby was born, themother began serving a four-year sentence on charges of theftstemming from attempts to embezzle money she says she needed to fighther ex-husband's efforts to win full custody of their daughter. Herattorney had suggested that she might receive a more lenient sentenceif she were married and pregnant. The tactic didn't work. She went toprison and her second husband filed for divorce that same day. Bitterand angry, she began the adoption process. Then one day in the prisonchapel, a man tapped her on the shoulder. That man was Enos Mullettsand he convinced her to keep her child. In her eyes, she said, theMulletts were heaven sent. "I don't think I'd have my daughter to bereal honest with you and I don't think I would be as strong a personwithout the Mulletts," she says. She is now out of prison, holdingdown a job and caring for her daughter. "At times I was betweenpaychecks and Enos was right there," she says. "It's hard coming outof prison. It's culture shock and you are basically left to fend onyour own. Luckily, I don't have a drug or alcohol problem, but Icertainly see why the turnover is so great for the women that do."Dr. Mary West, director of the Denver Women's Correctional Facility,believes women inmates have a tough time staying out of prisonbecause of low self-esteem and lack of work experience. "Many ofthese women are under-educated or non-educated and have no vocationalskills or trades," says West. "They become extremely co-dependent ontheir male partners and commit criminal acts for these partners." Itonly makes matters worse, she claims, when the women lose theirinfants after giving birth and then are expected to bond with themmonths or even years later. "If they are bonded with their infant andthen go home, I think the motivation to stay clean is greater," Westsays. She favors the system used at a woman's prison in BedfordHills, New York, where infants live with their mothers until the ageof 18 months. The proposed Denver Women's Correctional Facility willfeature apartments where inmates who are due to be released will beable to spend evenings and weekends with their children. Until localprison systems can provide these kinds of services, the Mulletts arethere to fill the void. "You take a woman and put her out on thestreet and she has to get a job and find day care for the child...butunless someone is there to help her she is going to fall flat on herface again," says Lydia Mulletts. "We'd like to see families put backtogether and they can't do it on their own. They need support."

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