Born Behind Bars: Inmates Raising Children in Prison

GIG HARBOR, Wash. - Right now, at Washington's largest corrections center for women, 871 inmates are serving their sentences. Among them are 8 babies being raised right in the middle of it all. It's a trailblazing program pioneered by Washington and now being adopted in other states. But, is prison a safe place to raise a child?

Little Deegan's hands tell so much about the eight-month old boy. He's playful, curious and always reaching out to his mother Sunny.

"We're all in this and it's hard," Sunny Van Cleave explained. "Deegan makes people happy."

Deegan is surrounded every day by everything he needs; he has his books and toys, his mom and the caregivers who love him. But, outside his home at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, razor wire separates Deegan from the reality of where he's been raised since he was born.

"I have never been in trouble in my whole life, except 2008," said Van Cleave. "That's when everything started."

Sunny never thought she'd end up in prison, let alone with a baby. Living in Deer Park, she had a marriage, two daughters and her own hair-dressing business. Then, she gave birth to a son with severe medical problems.

"They said your son is not going to live. When you get news like that, it's hard to explain, but a piece of you dies inside."

For a time, oxycontin brought her back to life. Even though her son survived, Van Cleave was already hooked. Soon, it wasn't about feeling better anymore, she said. It was just not to feel sick. On a dark November night in 2008, Van Cleave hit bottom. She robbed the Bi-Mart Pharmacy in Deer Park with what looked like a real gun. Then, she went to a home and tried to end her pain. She chewed 60 oxycontin tablets and blacked out. 10 days later, she woke up in the hospital; now, she was charged with First Degree Robbery. By the time she was sentenced a year later, she was clean and sober - and, pregnant with Deegan.

When she got to the WCCW, she was in the general population. Then, she found out she qualified for the Residential Parenting Program, where she could keep Deegan while serving her 31-month sentence.

"We're promoting a healthy bond between incarcerated women and their children," explained Sonja Alley, who supervises the program. On the day we visited last week, the RPP housed 10 women and 10 kids, with the youngest child just two weeks old.

Sheri Pam's son Quincey is 20-months old, the oldest in the unit right now. Pam is serving time for Second Degree Robbery; she was six months pregnant when she was sentenced. Like every room in the unit, Pam's room has a bed for her, a bed for Quincey and the toys and books you'd see in any toddler's room. Women here have to meet strict criteria to qualify: they have to be minimum-security offenders, CPS history is considered and mental health is evaluated. While there are exceptions, the women typically have to be serving a sentence of 30 months or less. It's a short time in prison terms, but a lifetime for these infants and toddlers. The program is designed to keep moms and babies from ever coming back.

"Children of incarcerated parents are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves," Alley explained. "So, we're really trying to break that chain."

The moms have support from the Dept. of Corrections staff and from other inmates. Mandy Carver is serving time for possessing a stolen car. She's a caregiver on the unit, meaning she babysits and is available around the clock for anything the moms need. She's intimately familiar with how the program works. Not only has Mandy been in prison before, she has been in this program before. Twice, she came in pregnant; twice, she was allowed to keep her baby with her. When she came back pregnant a third time, her entrance to the program was denied.

"The superintendent felt like I wasn't learning anything from repeated returns," Carver said. "It's been a huge wake-up call for me. The hardest thing was leaving my son.

Carver is an anomaly. Most women allowed in the program never set foot in prison again. But, what about the kids? It may help the moms to have their babies with them in prison, but is it fair to the kids who have to live here? How do they tell their child years later that they spent their first birthday and had their first steps just yards away from convicted killers?

"This experience has been positive for me - it hasn't been troubled or hard or anything," explained Pam, who has an 11-year old son living with his grandmother while she serves her time. "It's just kind of part of our story together."

The per-inmate cost of the program is the same as other minimum security offenders here - about $123 a day. DSHS money pays for toys, books and food. It's money the families would qualify for outside of prison, so there's no additional cost to taxpayers. Doctors come in once a month for well-baby checks and vaccinations. Many of the women say they're receiving care for themselves and their babies they had no idea how to access when their other children were born outside of prison.

Like their moms who work or go to school in prison, these babies are busy, too. Every day, they head across the prison yard to a sanctuary. It's the Early Head Start Program, staffed with educational professionals.

"We do have a curriculum that we use with infants and toddlers," explained infant-toddler educator Jo Ader. "It's really more about the experiences we provide them than a lesson plan."

If you couldn't see the razor wire outside, it's easy to forget your inside a prison when you see the kids at the center; it could be any early childcare center in the country. Because of this program, the only one in the nation, these kids are learning things their moms never could have taught them on their own.

"I wish I could take these women home with me," said Pam. "They're so good with Quincey and all the other kids. They're teaching Quincey sign language, he makes play-doh and colors and does all sorts of things."

The biggest challenge, though, comes when these women and their babies leave, heading back to old haunts and old habits.

"I want to make every moment that we have with them count for something," said Ader. "We don't have any control of what happens after they leave, but I feel like every good thing we can provide them with when they're here will help them when they get out."

And, when they do get out, it's not always a happy ending. The day we visited, Riley, the only girl in the unit, was leaving after more than a year in the RPP; her mom was not going with her. Oregon has a warrant for mom's arrest. She'll serve at least 13 months there and we're not sure where Riley is going. Another woman checked out while we were there and was heading right to the hospital, where her three-year old child is on life support, fatally injured by a family member earlier this month.

It's prison, after all. It's not perfect.

But, the women who remain are still confident they've been given the foundation they need to succeed when the gates finally open for them.

"When people think of prison, they think cold, dark and gloomy," said Pam, as her son Quincey sat watching cartoons a few feet away. "It's not really like that. People are people at the end of the day. People really do want to change."

As for Sunny Van Cleave, she's getting out soon. She'll head back to Deer Park to her fiance and three other children. She knows someday she'll tell Deegan where he came from - and that life doesn't have to be defined because he was born behind bars.

"I think it will be good for him to know - I'm going to tell him, I had you in prison."

KXLY4's Melissa Luck shares more about the program and further observations she made while visiting the prison at her blog Beyond the Headlines.

For more information on the Residential Parenting Program, click here.