Born Behind Bars
By Casey Coughlin
The baby carrier sits on the floor encircled by a flock of women. The one-week-old absentmindedly sleeps. Her olive skin and light brown peach-fuzz hair complete the classic baby girl picture. The women all yearn to hold her; every wrinkle of the nose and pucker of the lips sends the assemblage into a round of girlish giggles. Her mother stands amongst the crowd answering all the excited questions in a single stringed response. “Yes, only one week old, Gabriella, thanks, no those are her father’s ears! Six pounds four ounces, perfect size I know, thank you… ” The scene is typical of any new addition; however, for Gabriella the welcome home party is far from ordinary.
“I keep her for three months, which is an absolute blessing, but then I have to give her up,” she tells Vice President of Community Solutions, Terri Willams.
Michelle isn’t surrounded by family, old friends or neighbors. Her immediate family, including her other four-year-old daughter, are over eight hours away in Baltimore, Maryland. She is in a halfway house in Hartford, Connecticut and up until a few days before she gave birth, she and the unborn baby lived incarcerated.
“I was, I guess, in a time of debt and needed money pretty bad. So a friend of mine told me that somebody would pay me pretty good money to traffic drugs. So that’s what I did, and I got caught by the border patrol.”
Struggling with the financial responsibility of raising her four-year-old daughter on her own, Michelle made the fateful decision to cross the Mexican/U.S. border in possession. She was working and occasionally receiving child support from her ex-husband but was still struggling to keep the family financially afloat. “My mother said, ‘Why didn’t you just come to me for help?’ and I should have. I kick myself in the butt everyday for not setting my pride aside.” She later reveals that she and her mother have struggled with an estranged relationship throughout most of Michelle’s life. Sentenced to 41 months in a federal prison in West Virginia, she entered into her federal prison sentence a month into her second trimester.
The Federal Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together (MINT) program is a way for pregnant women to spend a few essential months with their new babies. Only available in a few states, eligible women are three months away from their birth date and have less than five more years to serve on their sentence. They are transferred to a community release program or halfway house, often far away from family, to give birth and raise their child for the first three months before returning to prison. Connecticut is one of seven MINT Programs in the country.
Before this program was created, expectant mothers had a harsher reality to face. Given only a few days in the hospital, they would be immediately separated from their infants, who were placed either with family or foster care, and sent straight back to prison.
When asked to compare her first pregnancy with her current Michelle answers vaguely. “It was definitely easier with my four-year-old because I wasn’t hiking hills everyday in the mountains and I wasn’t working. I was working up until I came here. It was a lot harder because they don’t look at you any different when you’re pregnant because you’re not disabled so you still have to work.” She craved ice cream. Nine months pregnant, Michelle made the long drive from West Virginia to Connecticut, in the back of inmate transport van. Three short days later, in the middle of a heat wave, she became the proud mother of a baby girl.
A week later the two are happily the center of the flock of women. Michelle’s room stands out amongst the overall neutrality of the house, covered in an almost too bright coat of yellow paint. As a federal MINT inmate she gets her own room on the first floor of the house away from all the other state DOC women. Her bed is covered in newly washed baby outfits ready to be folded and put away. Boxes of diapers stand stacked high in the far corner. She is a confident mother, moving Gabrielle from carrier on the floor to her chest without stirring the sleeping child.
When Michelle was in the hospital her mother and four-year-old daughter made the day trip to meet the new member of the family. Michelle is prideful as she describes her daughter’s interaction with her new baby sister and confides that she is happy her daughter is still too young to really understand why she is away at “school” with a new baby.
When asked about how her daughter handled her going from primary caregiver to absent parent Michelle seems optimistic. “At first she dealt with it bad- her father (Michelle’s ex-husband) wasn’t really around too much, so it wasn’t like leaving me to be with a total stranger, just someone she didn’t know that well, but she’s a lot better now.” She continues to reveal a little bit of the guilt she feels being able to be with only one of her daughters. “It was kind of sad because it was like I was leaving one [daughter], but she’s handling it well. She doesn’t know per say what’s going on. She thinks she is just visiting her dad and visiting her grandmother.”
Her newborn daughter, Gabriella, will stay with Michelle’s mother until her sentence is over. When asked about the whereabouts of Gabriella’s father, Michelle answers sarcastically, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
The one catch to the MINT program is the inmate must be able to provide fully for the infant for the entire three months. For most women, financial instability was the reason they committed a crime in the first place. Providing means everything from diapers and wipes to medical costs. Federal Prison’s put everyone medically able to work every day and in return compensate them 10-20 cents an hour. If Michelle is making 20 cents/hr and works full time every week she is incarcerated she would have left the prison with $160. On average her baby would go through 840 diapers in her first three months. Using an average brand, her baby would require over $200 in diapers alone. She is already at least $40 short, not counting any other necessities if she has no other financial support Michelle is extremely lucky to have a mother who is willing to help provide for the newborn, but not every woman is as fortunate.
Times are pleasant now, but Michelle is all too aware of the reality she must face in 12 short weeks. “If I didn’t have her, doing my time would be a lot easier, because I keep her for three months then I have to give her up. So that’s like really, really, really hard to deal with emotionally, then having to go back to prison that’s a really big deal. That separation anxiety is going to be something else because right now I am so attached to her and she’s very attached to me so it’s going to be really hard emotionally when I have to eventually say goodbye.”