What it’s like to be a mother in prison / by Karen Frances Eng

Photographer Eman Mohammed captures the daily lives of incarcerated women and their children at one of the United States’ rare residential parenting programs.

Eman Mohammed was just 19 when she began covering her native Gaza for a Bethlehem-based news agency. She spent more than a dozen years navigating violence and gunfire — and sexism and harassment — to document the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in order to help others understand its toll on the peopleliving there.

Now living in Washington, DC, Mohammed continues to pursue in-depth projects of what she calls “culturally sensitive communities,” trying to highlight the humanity of people who are often misunderstood. Recently, Mohammed, a TED Senior Fellow, decided to focus on a group of incarcerated women who live with their children behind bars as part of a US government program.

Herself a mother of two, Mohammed went to the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor, Washington, an hour’s drive from Seattle, to find out what life is like for these women, learn how they got there, and show how the program is helping bring hope to them and their young children.

Crystal Lansdale and Kershawn

Crystal Lansdale and Kershawn

With a child, a second chance

Crystal Lansdale and her son, Kershawn, share a moment while getting ready for the day. Crystal, who came from a poor background, was imprisoned for dealing meth with her partner (he was also incarcerated at the same time). She didn’t know until she went to prison that she was pregnant. Lansdale tells Mohammed, “I grew up feeling like a fugitive, I feared all authority figures and I was constantly avoiding cops. Living with an addict father didn’t scare me away from drugs; instead, I started dealing them. When you’re lost, you turn to what you know, and meth was what I knew. From that point on, my life snowballed.”

Women make up 9.8 percent of the more than 2.12 million people incarcerated in the United States, and many are mothers. Only 12 US prisons allow them to live with their young children in prison. Residential parenting programs were founded to encourage healthy mother-child bonding, promote infant health, teach parenting and work skills, and, hopefully, reduce recidivism.

Of the over 1,000 women held at WCCW, just 8 at a time are allowed into the residential parenting program (RPP) after rigorous screening. They must be minimum-security inmates with sentences of 30 months or less, and they either have babies when they arrive or they’re due to give birth shortly. By being in the RPP, the women avoid having their kids taken from them and placed in the foster-care system — which would have been Kershawn’s fate, says Mohammed. “Governmental institutions are trying to minimize the number of kids who are going to foster homes, which is not an easy, cheap or safe option,” she says. Lansdale adds, “The only time I felt I was given a second chance was when I had my son. I could bond with him, and I started feeling safe. Second chances don’t happen to everyone, so I’m holding on to mine.”

Cassandra Luthi and newborn Evelyn

Cassandra Luthi and newborn Evelyn

Infancy, in an institution

Cassandra Luthi holds her newborn daughter, Evelyn. She says, I don’t think people understand how life-changing this is. I’m in prison, yes, but I feel so close to being free. My baby keeps reminding me of that.” Expectant mothers at WCCW go to a nearby hospital when it’s time to give birth, and after they’re discharged, they return to prison with their newborns. Each mother-child pair can stay in the RPP for no more than 30 months. WCCW staff strive to support the special needs and concerns of new moms, including postpartum depression. For example, “designated women known as caregivers are available to help offer a break for a couple of nights if a mother is not getting enough sleep,” says Mohammed.

Daidre Kimp and baby Stella

Daidre Kimp and baby Stella

Determined to stay together

Daidre Kimp adjusts her daughter Stella’s hat before she leaves her for the day.“Daidre was an accountant who was convicted of embezzling from clients,” says Mohammed. “She kind of breaks the mold for what you think is the stereotypical woman in prison — she is well-educated and has a son in college, but she got herself in trouble.” Kimp explains, “Every time I made an amount of money, I needed it to be higher, and my success became tied to a number that was never enough.”

When Daidre entered prison, she was not yet pregnant but she needed to be treated for uterine cancer. She received surgery to remove the growth, then found out she’d gotten pregnant during a prison visit with her spouse. Kimp’s husband is in active duty with the Navy, so he cannot raise the baby by himself. Mohammed says, “At first, he wasn’t supportive of Daidre keeping her baby in prison, but he’s coming around.”

Kershawn with his teacher and another child

Kershawn with his teacher and another child

A place where kids can still be kids

Kershawn reads a book with his daycare teacher. “He reads very well for a two-year-old,” says Mohammed. In many respects, life at WCCW is fairly normal for the families. Children and their mothers live together in their own apartments (complete with a lock on the door). After a mom drops off her kid at WCCW’s daycare service, she spends the day in apprenticeship courses and work, such as gardening or cleaning. She picks up her child at the end of the day, and they eat dinner together, followed by a bath and bedtime stories.

Maintaining a normal work day creates a rhythm that’s intended to prepare mothers and children for their future lives, according to Mohammed. “Breakfast is at 6:30 and 7:00, work and daycare begin at 8, and the day ends at 5,” she says. “When the women leave prison and return home, they’ll already be used to a realistic schedule that accommodates work and parenting.”

Crystal Lansdale at the TRAC program

Crystal Lansdale at the TRAC program

Gaining skills to succeed

Lansdale carries concrete blocks as part of the Trades-Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC) program, a WCCW course run in partnership with local unions. “TRAC trains and certifies women in construction skills, which will make them employable when they get out of prison,” says Mohammed. “It involves a lot of hard physical training, as well as skills training,”

Women in TRAC are also required to show discipline and leadership skills, and any displays of bad behavior — including bullying, harassment and a lack of initiative — will cause them to be ejected from that program. If successful, each trainee will leave prison with a certification and “preferred entry” for union apprenticeships. “It’s a fairly high starting wage, about $27 an hour,” Mohammed says. “More importantly, not a lot of employers would hire ex-felons.”

Kershawn befriends another inmate’s baby

Kershawn befriends another inmate’s baby

Sharing meals — and a life — together

During breakfast, Kershawn plays with a newborn in a stroller next to him. Children are provided with meals while at they’re at the prison daycare, and for “home” meals, mothers purchase and prepare their own food. Sometimes they receive financial help from family members, and they may also get state and federal assistance for low-income women, such as WIC (the nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children).

“I’ve never, in my whole entire life, seen a more well-behaved child than Kershawn,” says Mohammed. “I didn’t think they existed until I met them. He’s very affectionate, he hugs and kisses and loves, and he speaks nicely. He had a very minor tantrum once, but it was so mild. He and Crystal share a bond that you can’t help but see.“

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