June 15, 2000 News » Cover Story

When the bough breaks 

Prison mothers turn to southern Colorado Mennonites for child care support

When Stephanie Pierrie entered the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility in Cañon City just six months ago, she had already decided to name her baby Isaac.

"You have to go through a whole lot of measures to have an abortion in jail," she said on a recent Friday morning visit. "When I found out I was pregnant this time, I was in the county jail. I was devastated.

"I found an officer who agreed to take me for the abortion. My caseworker had talked to me about the adoption option, and I knew I couldn't do that. And just when I was about out of time, I was transferred here. I prayed about my decision, and was reading in Genesis, the story of Abraham and Sarah and how they were finally going to have a baby after 90 years or something, and Abraham was just going to sacrifice that child.

"Here I was feeling like I was going to have to sacrifice my baby because I was coming back to jail. I decided right then to have him, and I knew I would name him Isaac, even though I didn't know for sure he was a boy."

Pierrie had given birth to another child, Michael, while incarcerated six years ago. Michael, along with Stephanie's two other children, is cared for by Pierrie's sister in Denver who is unable, because of work demands, to bring the children for regular visits with their mother.

"When I got out, [Michael] didn't want nothin' to do with me," said Pierrie.

In jail off and on -- mostly on -- since she was 18, convicted of a string of drug offenses and one count of absconding, Pierrie is now 25 and due to be released from the Cañon facility in January of 2001. She is one of an estimated 140,000 women across the United States incarcerated in prisons and jails, and almost 1 million under the care, custody or control of federal, state or local corrections.

Her problems and concerns, sadly, are not unique.

Stephanie matches the typical profile of a female offender. Most women in the system are convicted of nonviolent offenses; one-third are drug offenders and many are convicted of property crimes like forgery and shoplifting, practices that frequently support drug habits. And though the per capita violent offending rate has dropped steadily among both men and women since peak rates in 1994, the number of women incarcerated has continued to increase exponentially. Between 1985 and 1995, the number of incarcerated males doubled nationally; during that same time, the number of women imprisoned, though significantly lower than men, tripled.

In Colorado, 365 women were imprisoned in 1994; in 1999, that number rose to 655. And in the past five years, 78 babies have been born to women serving time in Colorado prisons. Nationally, more than 2,200 pregnant women were incarcerated in 1997-1998.

An estimated 80 percent of women in U.S. jails and prisons are mothers, and most, like Pierrie, are single mothers of more than one minor child.

Overwhelmingly, the growing number of female inmates are placed in a system designed for males -- 25 years ago, very few women were in the system -- and though their needs differ significantly, they often go unaddressed.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 60 percent of female state prison inmates report having been physically or sexually abused prior to their incarceration. Women inmates are more likely than men to have been addicted to drugs, to have mental illnesses, to have been unemployed before incarceration, and to have pressing concerns about the immediate demands of parenting.

Pierrie and others like her raise questions about the validity and impact of the War on Drugs and about the inefficiency of a system that often locks drug offenders up without a promise of rehabilitation.

More heart-wrenching, but less often examined, is a question, raised by inmates like Stephanie Pierrie that a so-called civil society can no longer afford to ignore: What happens to the children of mothers who are prisoners when they give birth?

Visiting day

On an impossibly hot and startlingly clear summer's day, two fair-skinned young women, modestly dressed in mid-calf length dresses and sturdy shoes, their hair pulled back in buns and covered with lace bonnets, unload their car in the parking lot of the Women's Correctional Facility -- diaper bag, blanket and, finally, a wiggly baby boy, less than a year old, dressed in a bright blue short set, his skin a shiny blue-black.

They pass through a series of locked gates and enter the Visitor's Center, a plain brick outbuilding furnished with blue plastic chairs and Formica-topped tables. Vending machines add the only touch of color to the room, glowing in a back corner. A sign on the wall identifies acceptable and unacceptable dress and behavior: "Kissing, hugging, hickeys and hand-holding will not be tolerated."

The women, the baby and their bag are scanned by a guard with a magnetic scanning device before they are allowed to enter. The baby's shoes are removed and checked for contraband.

Amy Stutzman and Carla Groff are Mennonite women who live just up the road in Penrose and are part of New Horizons Ministries, a prison ministry headquartered in Cañon City, dedicated to caring for children whose mothers are in prison. Every Friday from 9 to 11:30 a.m., they bring the boy, Dante, to visit his mother, an inmate. They also visit Stephanie who, at this point, is eight months pregnant.

A set of twins born to a mother in the Denver Women's Correctional Facility also live with Carla, her husband, Amy and another nanny. Those babies visit their mother every other Wednesday.

It has been decided that when Stephanie's baby is born, the Mennonites will take and care for it until six months after she is released. Following her release, New Horizons will closely follow her progress reentering open society, and will encourage frequent visits with the baby, including bringing it to Denver for weekends until Stephanie is settled and the danger of early recidivism is passed.

Experience has taught them that 80 percent of mothers end up breaking the law again and go back to jail during the first 90 days out of prison; that number drops to less than half after six months. Over the eight years the Mennonites have cared for prison babies, many have been returned to them when their mothers return to prison -- a traumatic experience for everyone involved, but most especially for the child.

A power of attorney agreement has been signed, and when Stephanie enters the hospital, she will be allowed one 15-minute phone call -- to Carla, the person designated to come and take her baby home.

Stephanie chose this child care program despite the disapproval of her family and the father's family, because she had witnessed the experience of another inmate whose baby was cared for by New Horizons. "They take good care, you can tell," she said. "You know when a baby's happy, and these babies come in happy." Most importantly, the promise of an every week visit to encourage bonding guided her decision. "It's my decision," she asserts. "It's hard on the babies, but it's hard on us too."

Stephanie raises her left shoulder to relieve the constant pressure on her ribs. For weeks now, she has experienced pain up her left side, and her fears for her unborn child are multiplying wildly.

"If you're at home and you have a problem, you can just go to the doctor," she said, twisting over to her right side. "I've been in pain for weeks now, and I keep telling 'em it don't feel right. I've been pregnant before, and I know when something's not right."

Stephanie says that regular medical visits with a doctor are scheduled every two weeks on Wednesday at the prison, but some weeks the doctor cancels, and interim visits with para-professionals at the facility bring little, if any, comfort. She had one ultrasound, at four months, but she is convinced that another one is needed to determine the position of the baby.

"It doesn't feel like the other pregnancies," she said. "I worry all the time."

A healthy-looking woman with a dazzling set of straight, white teeth and glossy, black hair, Stephanie theorizes that the laissez-faire attitude of prison employees toward inmates seeking medical attention is predictable. "A lot of women go to them complaining when there's nothing wrong," she said. "So they get to where they just don't pay attention."

Stephanie is locked in her cell at night, and her roommate takes medication that prevents her from waking up. She fears going into labor and not being able to rouse a guard. "They gave me a broom to push the emergency button from my bed if I can't get up," she said, explaining that the ordeal of being transported, even when in labor, is fraught with time-consuming details like changing uniforms -- inmates must wear orange when being transported -- and finding and clearing the transport officer, even after the inmate's water has broken.

She hopes guards who are caring and sympathetic will be on duty the night she goes into labor -- Ms. Hall, Ms. Burke or Ms. Vernon would be good, she says.

Her fears are not unfounded, she finally confesses. During her first birth while in prison at age 19, she pounded on the door of her cell and told a male guard her water had broken.

"He said, 'You're gonna have to hold on a fuckin' minute,' " said Stephanie, her eyes filling with tears. "Somebody finally came, two hours later. The guys who work here, they just don't know. ..."

Outside the window of the Visitor's Center, wild brown bunnies hop across the outdoor visiting yard. "Some of the girls take them inside and hide them in their cells," said Stephanie. "They like to cuddle with them."

Visiting hours are over. Carla gives Stephanie a hug and Amy rounds up Dante and his things.

"Pierrie, you're to go to medical," says a male guard.

"I'm gonna have to strip you first," says a female guard in a quiet voice. Stephanie clutches her swollen belly, pushed tight against her prison-issue male uniform, and follows Dante's mom out of the room.

Beyond incarceration

Founded in 1990, New Horizons Ministries provides full-time child care to children of mothers who are incarcerated, at no cost to the mother. Supported by donations from individuals and churches across the nation, New Horizons receives no government funds except for medical care for the children, operating on a shoestring budget of $75,000 a year.

Currently operating out of a house in Penrose, a house in Cañon City where administrative services are headquartered, and a handful of private homes in the vicinity, the ministry is actively pursuing the purchase of a piece of land where they can build a larger, permanent facility. Since they came to Colorado, they have cared for more than 50 children, says administrator Loren Miller, and they have learned increasingly more about the difficulty, for the mother, of re-integrating into a secure, drug-free life outside of prison.

"Culturally, as Mennonite people, we envision creating a community complex where the women can live and work," said Miller. "But I have come to believe that would just be a continued confinement for the mothers. The real rehabilitation will take place as we meet them on their turf.

"We want to help them walk the sense of spiritual renewal they learned in prison."

Miller conducts weekly "Life Skills" classes at the Cañon City facility, teaching the basic tenets of successful living, according to Mennonite beliefs, including Bible study. And though his program's goals might seem a little un-worldly to some prison activists, they are firmly aimed at the well-being of both mother and child. New Horizons' stated goal is to reunite mothers with their children, preferably before the child reaches two years of age, and they have succeeded in many cases.

In other parts of the country, some Christian prison ministries have come under scrutiny from prison activists like the group CLAIM (Chicago Legal Aid to Incarcrated Mothers) in Illinois. Of particular concern was Haven of Hope, a home in Montana headed by a couple named Dick and Judy Harding who encouraged prison mothers to give them their babies, then tried to talk them out of taking the babies back once the women were released.

Miller concedes the best interest of the child and the needs of the mother are often hard to reconcile, but he believes that New Horizons can join forces with urban ministries to assure a successful reunion between mother and child and a better life for both. Currently, New Horizons has entered into partnership with Denver's House of Emmanuel, a program run by ex-felons that helps released offenders prepare for life on the outside by offering rigorous job training and counseling as well as financial support.

House of Emmanuel currently ministers to men, and New Horizons' involvement has been with a father who will soon gain sole custody of his child, a baby cared for by the Mennonites and given up by its mother. A similar house is now being built for women, partly funded by Mennonite congregations across the country, in support of New Horizons' work.

Meanwhile, the southern Colorado Mennonite community carries out the daily work of caring for the babies they have taken until their mothers are released. It's bittersweet work, given concerns about bonding problems associated with early separation of mother and child.

"Ideally, a child bonds first with his mother," said Miller. "But we believe that with daily, loving care, we give the child the ability to bond when [the two] are reunited. Most of our mothers tell us that at first the babies are uneasy, but it takes just a few days until they are comfortable and bonding. We believe that the care they receive in their early months and years makes that possible."

Advocates for women prisoners and their children agree that the cost of early separation is hard to assess. In an e-mail, CLAIM founder Joanne Archibald, a formerly incarcerated mother now working to provide legal aid for women prisoners, cited the difficulty.

"Essentially, very little is known and very little is done to help children of incarcerated parents," said Archibald. "The harmful effects due to the separation go on long after Mom is released from prison. My own son had years of counseling to deal with the loss he suffered from our one-year separation when he was seven months old."

Psychiatric studies confirm that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to experience anxiety, aggression and depression; are more likely to see a decline in school performance, to exhibit attention disorders and to be truants; and are more likely to become pregnant when teenagers.

Children of inmates most often go to grandparents -- about half the time -- and those family situations are often stressed by financial concerns and difficult, crowded living situations. Less than one-fourth of children whose mothers are in prison live with their fathers (by comparison, 90 percent of the children of male inmates live with their mothers), and the rest either live with family members or friends, or are placed in foster care.

Regaining custody once a child has entered the foster care system is difficult, often impossible, for women who have been incarcerated, and that option is roundly feared.

The Child Welfare League of America reports that half the children of incarcerated mothers never visit them, and the other half visit infrequently. Most women's prisons are located in rural areas, as is the Cañon City correctional facility, and travel is prohibitively difficult because children depend on their caregivers for transportation.

Frequently, work demands and the cost of transportation prohibit caregivers from arranging and following through on visits, and many are simply reluctant to visit prison. Visiting rooms are often crowded and noisy on regular weekend visiting days, and security measures are likely to frighten children.

"Even though we know that regular visits are the key to helping children work through trauma," the report concludes, "and that regular visits are the best predictor of families reunifying when prisoners are released -- we still don't do much to support or encourage visitation."

A few prisons have instituted nurseries and boarding facilities where mothers and infants are allowed to be together for a period of time. In 1993, the U.S. Congress identified the separation of mothers and children by jail and prison bars as a national crisis, and authorized the National Institute of Corrections to allocate $8 million a year to fund residential mother/child care facilities. Six years later, according to an Amnesty International report, the NIC has failed to spend a single dollar toward that end.

Residential child care programs and programs like New Horizons, which facilitate regular visitation, are exceedingly rare.

For the most part, women giving birth while in prison are sentenced to days, months and years of separation from their children, and their children are sentenced to life without a mother.


Two weeks after our first meeting, Stephanie Pierrie has given birth to a baby boy, Isaac Amir, and has returned to prison.

Stephanie was hospitalized immediately after a routine two-week checkup revealed she was four centimeters dilated and the baby was in a breech position (head up, feet down), likely the cause of her discomfort.

A female guard was with her throughout the turning of the baby and the birth, and a male security guard was placed in her room until her release 24 hours later.

"He was really nice," she said last Friday, during her first visit with Isaac. "I didn't have to wear foot chains, and he only cuffed me to the bed when he had to go to the bathroom."

Amy and Carla have accompanied Dante and Isaac to the prison, and the two mothers, two nannies and two boys have an animated reunion. Stephanie has set her hair in long curls and appears cheerful, almost jubilant to see her son.

Everyone comments on his long arms and slender fingers. Stephanie rubs her fingers over his gums, around the inside of his mouth, across his forehead, memorizing every feature. She jiggles him, hoping he will awaken so that he will see her before he goes.

"Does he wet right away?" she asks Amy.

They trade diapering information and discuss his eating habits.

"He's picky about the temperature [of his formula]," says Amy and Stephanie nods.

"He must have got that from his mom."

The four women share Cokes, popcorn and small talk for two hours. Stephanie holds Isaac in her lap, never glancing away from him.

"I don't get that post-partum depression," she says. "The days are OK. I'm sad at night 'cause that's when he moved. He was always still in the day -- sometimes I was afraid, he was so still -- but at night he wiggled and moved."

Dante's mother tries to encourage him to crawl, lying next to him on the floor and enticing him forward with a colorful toy. She coaxes him for a good while, then relents and he takes a nap in her arms.

"Five minutes," calls the guard from behind the desk. The room turns silent. Amy and Carla begin tidying the area.

Stephanie studies Isaac's face as hers darkens. A fat tear drops off the end of her nose as she kisses him over and over. Carla walks over and places her arms gently around Stephanie's hunched shoulders, hugging her firmly and assuring her in a quiet tone.

Finally, Stephanie stands and hands Isaac over to Amy, checking to see that his blanket is firmly wrapped around him, his cap pulled snugly over his head.

The nannies leave quickly with the babies, walking onto the blistering parking lot and silently loading the car while Stephanie, now weeping openly, waits to be strip searched before going back to her work assignment or her cell.

Outside, a meadowlark, its breast a brilliant yellow-green, lifts off the razor wire fence and catches a current of wind, swooping toward the foothills, away from the prison.

To contact New Horizons Ministries, call administrator Loren Miller at 719/275-1719.


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