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I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.

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Seductive Musings

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Behind bars again



Like a habitual offender, I found myself behind bars again.

Today, I went to the state’s women’s prison to interview pregnant inmates. As anyone who’s read Unlawful Contact knows, women in prison has been a topic of interest for me for a very long time.

Back in 1997, I spent 24 hours as an inmate in the county jail in an effort to learn more about the experience women face while incarcerated. You can read all about that here.

Since then, I’ve covered incarcerated women's issues from lots of different viewpoints, including reporting on a woman who lost her baby after guards neglected her when she went into labor. (Unlawful Contact is dedicated to the memory of her baby.)

This time, my focus was strictly on the health care pregnant women receive while in state prison. (Note: "Prison" and "jail" are not interchangeable terms. Prisons are run by the federal government or the state, while jails are run by cities and counties. Long sentences are served in prison, while minor sentences are served in jails, generally speaking. Lifers go to prison, not jail.)

When I first arrived, the guard at the front desk didn’t have me listed in his computer as being approved for a visit — a mistake that took about 20 minutes to correct. I know from experience what to bring and what not to bring to prison, so they searched my purse and had to remove nothing. Then I was escorted back to the medical unit, which was very busy.

While there, I was able to interview several pregnant inmates — one who is only three weeks away from her due date — and an inmate who gave birth to a little boy last Thursday.

Most of the women I spoke with were in prison for drug offenses — possession and use of illegal drugs, including meth. One was there for having gone joy riding in a stolen car after a drinking binge with friends. Yeah, not a good decision.

For all of them, the worst part of having a baby in prison was (or will be) having to give up the baby shortly after birth. The woman who'd had her baby last week got to hold her son for five hours and was then taken down to a locked ward, where she stayed overnight. The next day she was brought back to prison. She hasn't seen her baby since the day he was born.

Personally, I can’t imagine enduring that. I could barely let go of my babies when they were newborn, even to let their grandparents hold them. Having to give them up... Well, that’s one good reason to stay out of prison.

One of the pregnant women hoped to give her baby into the care of a community of Mennonites, who have taken on the very selfless and loving task of raising the children of female inmates while the children’s mothers do time. State law allows people to seek to adopt children who are in foster care for more than a year, so a woman with kids who is sentenced to a few years behind bars is probably going to lose custody of her kids forever — a situation that causes extreme depression and heartache for these women. The Mennonites, however, take these babies and children into their families, raise them as their own, bring them to visit their mothers and do everything they can to support bonding between mothers and children. They even help mothers get jobs and help them transition into parenting.

God bless the Mennonites!

But for all the difficulties and discomfort, there are sometimes positive aspects to being pregnant in prison. For women who's lives are in shambles, prison can be a shelter from the more horrible aspects of their lives — drugs, prostitution, boyfriends and husbands who abuse them and so on. One pregnant mother told me that she'd used drugs during a previous pregnancy but that because she was in prison, she's been clean and feels for the first time that she's bonding with her baby.

The practitioners I met — nurses, assistants, and others — were extremely caring and kind. It reminded me why some woman inmates deliberately try to find reasons to go to the medical unit — they feel cared for there.

Any time I interview offenders or visit a prison or jail, I am amazed at how off-track some people’s lives can get. The lives of women in prison are a mix of tragedies and very bad choices. A night of drinking. Hooking up with the wrong boyfriend. Turning to drugs to deal with the pain of past violence. The inability or unwillingness to see to take responsibility for one’s life.

You'd be surprised — astonished, really — to see the connection between childhood violence, including incest and sexual assault, and criminality in women. There’s also a big connection between women’s boyfriends/husbands and criminality. Men tend to drag the women in their lives into their criminal actions. For example, a man might beat someone up on a drug deal gone bad while his girlfriend sits in the car... And then she’s also charged.

Wow, I'm really rambling here, aren’t I?

All of the interviews today are going to be part of an article focused on pregnant women in prison. I still have additional interviews to do, but after months (and months) of trying to schedule this prison visit, I’m happy to have gotten this far.

10 comments:

Cecile said...

You are a woman of great passion Pamela! I admire that in you as a human and as a fellow woman. (hugs to you).

Heather D said...

Your passion for this topic has really come through.

I know a woman who had a baby while in prison. She had already decided to put the baby up for adoption. She has made several bad choices in her life and continues to make them. She has however straightened up enough to keep a job and a roof over her head with out needing her mother's help. I don't understand how she could so willingly give up not one but two children. I guess I could say four, as her first two kids live with their fathers and she is not allowed to see them.

Linda A. said...

Yes, it's amazing the paths some people's lives take. Kudos, Pamela, for your caring and passion for women in trouble.

Debbie H said...

You are fearless and I am so glad you are in this world taking on the issues no one else seems to care about. Major thumbs up and pats on the back.

Hugs!

Thanks, everyone. You‘re all very kind, and I appreciate the support.

But the truth is that I‘m just doing my job. This kind of thing is what journalists are supposed to do — not chasing celebrities or hobnobbing with rich guys in suits.

The job of the journalist is to ”comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” or to be ”a voice for the voiceless.” I think too many journalists have forgotten that.

I truly hope that writing about these issues opens hearts and minds to people they might other wise dismiss as hopeless or useless worthless. I’m going to try to get the article ready for next week’s paper, though I doubt I can manage that. I’ll post a link when it’s up.

Cecile, thanks for the hugs. :-)


Linda and Debbie — thanks so much!

Heather, I'm glad the former inmate you know has managed to pull her life together. The decisions some of these women make — to give up children, to stay with men who abuse them, to use drugs while pregnant, etc. — are sometimes impossible to fathom. But what I see when I speak with them are women who grew up in terrible situations and never developed the ability to care for themselves or to think critically about their own lives.

As the saying goes, "There but for the grace of God go I." I believe that’s true for all of us. And even if it isn’t, these women are human beings. And as deeply troubled human beings they deserve some compassion and help. Salvaging their lives means that we can salvage the lives of their children, too.

RitaSV said...

Your article sounds like it will be very interesting. Do your articles ever get posted in an online version of your paper? Not living in Colorado, I obviously don't get the paper you write for.

Mitzi H. said...

Not rambling at all...I read this yesterday and didn't have time to respond.

I have a best friend that is on the (state) side...regarding women prisoners. She's been told lots of stories from the female inmates as to why they are there and it always surprises me how many have placed themselves in situations (on-purpose) so they can have health care and 3 meals a day....especially if they are with child.

And it is sooo true...Many of them are there because of the help they gave their boyfriends, husbands...but they knew that to say NO was NOT A ANSWER (or at least not worth dying for)...and in the end, ended up in prison.

But, it is also true that there are lots of women in prison that deserve to be there.

I don't have an answer...but I think that we as a society should find a way to help those female prisoners that deserve it.

Hi, Rita,

I can post the text here or post a link so that you can read the article. I've got about a dozen people to interview today if I'm going to stand a chance of getting it written by next week. We'll see. :-)

Hi, Mitzi — Thanks for posting! It's true that for many women prison is a better/safer option than being on the outside. In prison, they face less violence and they get fed (really awful) meals three times a day, plus medical care. I really don't judge them for that. As the midwife who was treating these women told me, "It's a really sad state of affairs that they don't get these things unless they're in prison."

But there are really dysfunctional women, and, yes, the women in prison have committed crimes, some of them serious. That's why they're there. And a lot of them make ridiculous excuses for being in prison — the cops have it out for them or they didn't know they had to report to their parole officer by X date or they didn't know they could get sent back to prison for shoplifting while on parole. Huh?

I have heard all of these excuses personally.

I guess the thing for me is that, as dysfunctional as some of these women are, and as violent as some of them can be, they're still women. My main goal when I started out as a journalist was to be a voice for women. (I later took on Native issues, too.) That includes being a voice for women I might not like, but who are nevertheless my sisters. (That's a spiritual point of view for me, and I know not everyone shares it.)

One of my FB friends used to be a correctional officer and sent me a really fascinating message yesterday about the things her DH, who is still a CO, experiences at the hands of female inmates. I might ask her if she'll come do a guest blog to share that side of the story.

Sue Z said...

Hi Pamela!

I just watched an Episode of "Locked Up Abroad" lst weekend.

A young woman who was on vaction in another country (can't remember where) accepted a deal to smuggle several bags of coke on her person back to the US for some quick cash. Needless to say she got busted.

The woman was only a few weeks pregnant at the time & was given a 5 year sentence in the counrty she was caught in. She had to give birth is prison.

This lady was allowed to keep her baby 24/7 with her in a private cell for the first 3 months of the childs life. If a relative did not come to pick up the baby after the 3 months was up, the baby would go in to social services & she would loose custoday.

Her mom ended up coming to get the baby, but turing him over must have been aweful. Then knowing that you would not see the baby again until he was 4 years old.

In this case it was a good person who made a terrible mistake.

FYI - Pamela's paper does have a website where you can read her articles

Hey, Sue — Oh, yikes! You wouldn't believe the number of young women who fall for that. Some of them swallow drugs in condoms or try to hide them in their bodies and then get to take advantage of federal hospitality by staying in a glass cell naked until they pass the swallowed drugs, or enduring a body-cavity search. Not something anyone wants to go through, but sometimes people just don't think.

There are some states here that have programs allowing moms to take newborns into special prison wards, but my state doesn't have one.

Yet... ;-)

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