Parenting in prison: Keeping children with their mothers behind bars
Candida Suarez and Skye Logue push their babies in strollers through the courtyard, the sun glinting off the razor wire behind them.
The two women pass gardens dotted with flowers, along with signs reading, “Out of bounds — do not approach.” They chat about how they’ll dress up their sons, 10-month-old Aceyn and 9-month-old Ezra, for Halloween, and what kind of cake they’ll serve at the babies’ birthday parties.
It’s October, and Aceyn and Ezra will soon turn 1 year old inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women, where they’ve lived since they were born.
Aceyn will be 19 months old when he leaves the prison in June with Logue, who gave birth to him six months into her two-year sentence. Ezra will be 22 months old when Suarez, his mother, is released in the fall.
The babies are among 15 children living with their mothers in the prison in Purdy. They are part of the state’s Residential Parenting Program, as are two other inmates who are pregnant and waiting to deliver.
Prison officials estimate about 500 women have raised their babies in prison through the program since it began in 1999. Similar prison nursery programs exist in seven other states.
The idea is to keep mothers and babies together — giving mothers a reason to turn their lives around, and allowing their infants to develop emotional attachments researchers say are crucial to becoming healthy, well-adjusted adults.
Logue and Suarez, in prison for nonviolent offenses involving drugs, say the program is helping them envision a different future for themselves.
“You realize how much of a blessing it is to have the program and to have the baby here with you,” says Suarez, 26, as she holds Ezra in a common area of the prison’s nursery unit.
“Seeing him smile is basically what gives me the motivation to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Some question whether states should be putting babies in prison, arguing it is not a healthy environment for a child.
But the people who run Washington’s program say the babies are better off with their mothers than they would be anywhere else.
The babies can leave the prison to spend weekends with grandparents and relatives, helping them develop relationships with other family members.
“These babies are really happy. They are with their moms,” says Dona Zavislan, the superintendent of the prison. “They’re not at the age where they have any idea what razor wire is or what anything like that is.”
“I think it is a great place for them to get a start, given some of the alternatives.”
‘My rock bottom’
Suarez and Logue were born on the same November day 26 years ago. Before arriving at the prison, they also shared the same downfall: Drugs.
Now, Suarez sits on the bed in her room in the prison’s J unit, talking about her past and her hopes for the future. The hallway outside hums with cooing mothers, crying infants and babies babbling.
Three times a day, guards peer through the slit-like windows on the doors to the women’s rooms, counting to make sure everyone is there. Other times, the women and children are free to be in the common areas, when they’re not completing work assignments or attending classes.
Like all the women accepted into the Residential Parenting Program, Logue and Suarez were pregnant when they arrived at the prison, unsure what would happen to their unborn babies. When Suarez learned she might be able to keep her child through the prison nursery program, it was a relief.
“I felt like there was hope,” Suarez recalls.
The program is open only to pregnant inmates who are classified as a minimum security risk and haven’t committed serious violent offenses or crimes involving children. The incarcerated mothers must be scheduled for release by the time their babies are 30 months old.
Suarez is serving a 25-month sentence after Kennewick police found her and another person in a car with a 3.4 grams of methamphetamine, a .32-caliber semiautomatic handgun and what looked like a drug ledger. By that time in August 2014, she already had convictions for third-degree assault, drug possession and possession of stolen property.
Since then, Suarez has gone through drug treatment and taken parenting classes, she says. When she gets out, she plans to move to a transitional housing program near Renton — far away from the gang affiliations she says dragged her down in the Tri-Cities, her hometown.
One of the first things she wants to do is remove some of the tattoos on her hands, neck and arms, which she says continue to label her as having gang ties.
She lifts her long brown hair to reveal a name tattooed on her neck, and quietly starts to cry.
Removing the tattoos is about more than changing her appearance, she says. It’s about setting an example for her son, who sleeps in his crib a few feet away.
“I just feel like it’s part of overcoming that lifestyle and those people and being able to just say, ‘That’s a part of my past’ — and really meaning it,” Suarez says.
She has two other children: A son she gave birth to when she was 14 years old and a daughter who is about 5. Both were put up for adoption.
She says she won’t let the same thing happen with Ezra. Her own mother was arrested about the same time as Suarez, and the two spent a few months incarcerated alongside each other. The experience “was the biggest eye-opener,” she says.
“I know that it’s my responsibility to give Ezra the best life I can,” Suarez says. “Coming to prison has been my rock bottom, and I want something different now.”
“I really want him to have a different life and to know things that I didn’t.”
Suarez and Logue have another thing in common: Logue’s mother spent time at the prison in Purdy. Now, Logue says she’s determined to prevent Aceyn from going down the same road.
Logue was driving a stolen vehicle when a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy caught up with her in March 2015. There was a small bag of meth in her left front pocket and a stolen credit card in the car. She already had four convictions for drug possession, along with ones for burglary and taking a motor vehicle without permission.
Getting pregnant was a turning point in her life, Logue says. When she found out she was expecting, she entered a plea deal to get drug treatment in exchange for prosecutors dropping her drug charge.
“I’ve been here before — this is my second time here — and it’s a sick cycle,” Logue says. “I feel if I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant with Ace, I could have still been doing the same thing.”
She says she’s learned from her own mistakes, as well as her mother’s. Her mom went back to school, got clean and now is a physical therapist, she says.
Logue plans a similar turnaround for herself.
“I’ve gotta do it, for him,” she says, gazing at Aceyn, who plays on the floor of her room.
“Even though he was born in prison, now I can take this and turn it into something where he won’t even know this life ever existed.”
Does it work?
The state Department of Corrections is still working to analyze the outcomes of the Residential Parenting Program, including how it affects rates of recidivism, according to a spokesman.
Some data suggest women who participate in prison nursery programs might be less likely to reoffend.
Of 131 pregnant offenders who went through the program between 1999 and 2007, 19 returned to prison on probation violations or new charges as of 2007, according to an article co-written that year by two Washington prison officials, Melissa Rowland (now Melissa Johnson) and Alice Watts.
That works out to a 15 percent rate of recidivism among program participants, compared with an average recidivism rate of 38 percent among adult felons in the state.
Mary Woods Byrne, director of the Center for Children and Families at Columbia University, says her research similarly has found the recidivism rate for inmates in prison nursery programs is “really low.”
She also found that babies in prison nursery programs develop secure attachments to their mothers just as well as healthy babies raised by mothers in the community.
Byrne says she has seen nothing negative come from prison nursery programs.
“There’s no downside,” she says.
Not everyone agrees.
James Dwyer, a law professor at the College of William and Mary, says placing infants in prison with their mothers violates the children’s constitutional rights and can’t provide babies the mental stimulation they need for proper brain development.
“None of them should be living in that environment,” Dwyer says.
He says studies of inmates who participate in prison nursery programs often are flawed, because they compare the general prison population to a carefully screened group of mothers already less likely to reoffend.
Most recidivism studies also fail to account for inmates who are kicked out of the programs and lose their babies for violating prison rules, Dwyer says.
At Purdy, two women in the Residential Parenting Program lost their babies in 2016 because of behavioral issues or serious infractions, prison officials say. Babies in that situation typically end up going to live with family members.
Dwyer suggests babies born to mothers in prison would be better off being put up for adoption — or, if a mother’s remaining sentence is shorter than seven months, being placed with a temporary caregiver until the mother gets out of prison.
“The women in prison are not normal people who happen to get arrested for the first mistake they’ve made in their life,” Dwyer says. “These are people who have deep-seated problems that prison only tends to exacerbate. And babies don’t fix them.”
Yet officials with the Residential Parenting Program worry things would be worse for inmates if there were no option for them to keep their babies.
“When we take their babies away from them — and I’ve heard this over and over — they say, ‘I just give up,’ ” says Michele Thrush, one of the program’s counselors. “They have that mentality where, ‘I’ve lost my child, so I’m a loser, I’m no good, I’m a terrible parent — so I might as well make that come true.’”
In the program, by contrast, “I see they have hope,” Thrush says.
“I see them starting to think differently about what their lives can actually look like, instead of going back to what it was,” she says.
Paying for the program isn’t an issue for the state, officials say. The cost of running the unit that houses the program is the same as running any minimum security unit at the prison and requires no additional staff members, says Sonja Alley, the unit supervisor.
Meanwhile, the babies in the prison nursery unit qualify for the same child care and Medicaid benefits as foster children or other low-income families in the community, she says.
Incarcerated mothers receive $202 in government assistance each month to buy food, diapers and other items for their babies. The monthly benefits through the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will continue after the women are released.
Should the state place the children in foster care, the cost would be higher. For each child 5 and younger, Washington officials pay foster parents between $562 and $1,364 per month, depending on the needs of the child.
That doesn’t include all costs associated with putting a child in foster care, such as court costs, says Norah West, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Training for life
Suarez and Logue sometimes cook dinner together in a kitchen in the J unit. They order food and other supplies weekly, using their $202 per month allotment from the government.
During a reporter’s visit, they were making a pasta dish with hamburger and vegetables.
Zavislan, the prison superintendent, says some key benefits of the Residential Parenting Program are the skills it teaches the inmates, including how to stick to a budget and cook healthy meals for their babies.
“Truly, some of them have not themselves had good parenting,” Zavislan says. “So we have an opportunity.”
“We don’t often look at prison that way, but we have an opportunity while we have them here to also help them learn to be more responsible, learn how to be a good parent, a role model — and get their act together.”
During the day, the babies go to day care. The prison provides an Early Head Start Program, which is licensed by the state. Out of their $202 monthly allowance, the women pay a $15 monthly co-pay for their children’s day care program.
The women, meanwhile, complete work assignments or go to classes.
Suarez spent her first year in prison working to earn her high school diploma and plans to enroll in college courses soon. After she’s released in October, she wants to go to trade school and find work as an X-ray technician, or maybe a dental hygienist.
“I just think I’ve come a long way, mentally and emotionally,” Suarez says. “I feel like I’m a whole new person today than I was a year ago when I got here.”
Logue works as a janitor during the day and is taking a course aimed at helping inmates re-enter society. Like Suarez, Logue plans to raise her son as a single parent.
She says that when she gets out later this year and moves in with her family in Sequim, she’s going to start school and work toward getting a job as a cosmetologist.
One thing Logue feels confident about, she says, is that she’s ready to be a mom to Aceyn on the outside.
“Having this experience with him in here, I’m not so scared of getting out,” Logue says. “I’m not worried about, ‘How am I going to take care of him? What am I going to do?’ ”
“I kind of have an idea of what it’s going to be like.”