Mothers Behind Bars

A HUNDRED MILES SOUTHWEST OF Omaha, amid rolling farmland, the Nebraska Center for Women offers startling proof that a Big House can also be a home. Though surrounded by a barbed wire fence and patrolled by guards with guns, the 27-acre prison, with its motley assortment of buildings and carefully trimmed lawns, has almost a small-town feel. An odd sense of domesticity is particularly apparent in one building, where inmate Jody Lamkins Vest, 25, sits in a nursery dandling her 5-month-old daughter, Cassandra. “I feel so lucky to be able to hold my baby, to care for her,” says Vest, who has since been moved to a work release center after serving six months of two concurrent 18-month sentences for fraud. “It gives me a sense of routine, of life as it used to be. There’s something to look forward to every day.”

That may seem like a strange way to run a prison, especially these days when the prevailing national mood is to stress the tough and forget the love. But none of that has stopped Larry Wayne, 44, the warden at the Nebraska Center in York, from nurturing one of the country’s most ambitious programs that allow carefully screened mothers behind bars to watch over and care for their children. Not only are the women permitted to have babies up to 1 year old live with them in special rooms, but they are allowed to have their older children sleep over as many as five nights a month. For Wayne, a tall former football player for the University of Nebraska, it all makes sense: There are roughly 113,000 women in prison in the U.S., a stunning increase of almost threefold since 1980. Mandatory sentencing laws are largely responsible for this surge of jailed women—three-quarters of whom have children under the age of 18—and for their longer prison terms. “Eighty percent of our inmates are mothers; 90 percent of those will care for their children when they get out,” Wayne says. “They shouldn’t be strangers to their children.”

Yet in most places they are. Consider Sue Kennon, 46, a former drug addict doing time at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, Va.: Kennon has served almost 10 years of a 48-year sentence, with no possibility of parole, for four armed robberies—three with a toy gun. During her time behind bars she has been able to see her two sons, who are 10 and 12 and live with their father, about once a month at best, for 1 to 2 hours at a time; her daughter Beverly, 17, who lived with Sue’s parents for almost 10 years and has recently moved in with family friends outside Richmond, also visits monthly and talks to her mother at least once a week.

To help redeem herself, if only in her children’s eyes, Kennon began taking college correspondence courses in 1988. Her case came to the attention of 93-year-old Elizabeth Campbell, founder of the Washington public television station WETA, who provided the money for Kennon to get her bachelor’s degree from Ohio University and is now paying for her graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She wanted to save herself for the sake of her children,” says Campbell. “She went back to school to make them proud of her.”

Kennon has made many attempts to have her case reconsidered, but none so far has succeeded. For now, the plight of her children and of all prison mothers has become Kennon’s mission. “I want to get out of prison, finish my Ph.D., and start a program that offers support for the children of men and women in prison,” she says. “These kids are six times more likely to be incarcerated than other children. They need extra love.”

Currently, Kennon must content herself with the 15 pictures of her children—the maximum allowed—that she has taped to the walls of her 6-by-9-foot cell. “There are some days I can’t even look at them, it hurts so much, and other days I just get on my knees and stroke their little faces and try to tell them how sorry I am,” she says. “It’s like a physical pain in my heart.” Like many other states, Virginia has no provision for helping inmate mothers maintain close relationships with their kids. (Only Nebraska and New York have programs that allow babies to stay with their mothers. Half the imprisoned mothers in the U.S. never see their children.) “It’s mothering from a distance,” says Kennon. “[During visits] you just sit and ask them questions like, ‘What’s your favorite color?’ You know nothing about their lives in even the basics like that.”

Kennon is quick to concede that she deserves to be punished for her crimes. Raised in a comfortable middle-class home in Chesapeake, Va., she had wrorked briefly as a flight attendant for Piedmont Airlines before she married Charlie Kennon in 1976. In July 1979, with Sue six months pregnant, i they were living at his family’s 200-year-old plantation house in Powhatan, Va. But Charlie went for a swim one sultry evening and was killed when he accidentally dove onto a submerged log, severing his spinal cord. “I was just blown away by his death,” says Sue. “After Beverly was born, I used to take her and go to the cemetery and just sit by his grave and talk to him.”

Deeply depressed, she became addicted to prescription drugs and, unknown to friends or relatives, went through one cycle after another of addiction and detoxification over the next eight years. In 1983 she settled down with an old high school friend and they had two sons, whose names she does not want disclosed for the sake of their privacy. But her depression—and addiction—continued, and she graduated to using heroin. In 1987, desperate for money to feed her habit, she robbed three stores of $300 using a plastic gun. Then, wielding an unloaded and broken gun, she stuck up a pharmacy, whose owner shot her in the shoulder. A few months later she was convicted of one of the robberies and confessed to the others. Despite having no previous record of violence, she was sentenced to 48 years and denied parole under a controversial interpretation of the state’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out law. For Kennon it was almost a relief. “I was leading a double life, ashamed but so afraid to admit the truth,” she says. “Prison was where I belonged.”

If not where she wanted to be. For almost a year she was not allowed to see her children at all, and she was haunted by guilt. “I tore this family apart,” she says. “I hate myself when I think what I’ve done to my children.” Of Kennon’s kids, Beverly has borne the brunt of the shame and loneliness shared by many children of imprisoned mothers. “My mom has been in jail since I was 7.1 can’t even call her up,” Beverly says. (The prison refuses to allow inmates to receive calls.) When Beverly was 8, her best friend was no longer permitted to play with her because of Sue’s imprisonment. “That hurt a lot,” says Beverly. A year and a half ago, though she had previously been an A student, she fell in with a fast crowd and dropped out of school. “I chose bad people because I was afraid that good people wouldn’t accept me,” she explains. Says a family friend: “She is a needy child. It’s like there are missing pieces that have to be filled in.” Now, back in school at her mother’s urging and on the honor roll, Beverly says she tells others in her situation, “Don’t be ashamed. Don’t try and hide it. No matter what, stay in contact with your parents and forgive them.”

Virginia officials aren’t so quick to forgive; they have refused to commute Kennon’s sentence. “Sue Kennon should have thought of her children before she decided to use drugs and commit robbery,” says David Botkins, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Marilyn Moses, a program director at the National Institute of Justice, a federal research group, believes that view is shortsighted. “Mothers don’t deserve special treatment,” she says, “but we’d better recognize that it is primarily women who care for kids before and after they are incarcerated.” Without their mothers to care for them, she says, “children have been the hidden victims.” These were not the sorts of issues that Jody Vest ever thought she’d be facing. The mother of three daughters—Madison, now 7, Meghan, 6, and Macy, 4—Jody became involved with Sean Vest, a convicted armed robber, two years ago, and he and Jody passed a number of bad checks. “He can be very, very charming,” one prosecutor says of Vest. “He used her incredibly.” Arrested in September 1994, Jody was eight months pregnant with Cassandra when she was sentenced last December. (Sean Vest, now 32, drew 6 to 12 years as a habitual offender.) “Maybe it was a wake-up call,” Jody says. “I knew what I was doing was wrong…. Being a mother is my whole life.”

She quickly learned about the prison’s innovative nursery. Started by Warden Wayne in 1993, the program normally has a half-dozen mothers who live in private rooms with cribs for their babies. Without that option, Jody might well have lost custody of Cassandra, since the child’s father, Sean Vest, was also behind bars. As for Jody’s three older girls, the prison for the past 22 years has had a program called Mother-Offspring Life Development that offers sleep-over visits for boys up to age 9 and girls up to 12. Fortunately for Jody, the girls’ father, Dan Bressman, 37, a construction worker in Carter Lake, Iowa, was willing to care for them, meaning they were less than a 2-hour drive from York.

As Rene Uldrich, 33, a former elementary school teacher who runs the nursery program at York, is quick to point out, the emphasis is on cuddling, not coddling. All prospective mothers are evaluated before being allowed to participate. Those deemed a threat to their kids are excluded. Clearly, permitting mothers to have their babies inside the facility is a powerful incentive for the prisoners to behave themselves. Vest and the other mothers involved in the program are responsible for every aspect of their care, except during the times the women must perform their prison jobs, when two staff caregivers mind the kids. The mothers are obliged to take a variety of parenting classes. “We talk about ways to handle issues with children,” says Uldrich. “We teach about controlling anger.”

Jody acknowledges that visits with her older daughters can be difficult. “It’s tough in a way,” she says. “They’re angry that I’m in here. They can’t understand why I can’t come home, why they can’t stay longer.” But, she says, “at least I have a chance to be one-on-one with my children.”

Warden Wayne maintains that on practical grounds alone such programs make sense, since it costs $11,000 a year for an infant to stay with its mother in prison, as opposed to $18,000 for a child in foster care. But ultimately, says Wayne, the best rationale for the program is the need to do right by the kids. States should have a keen interest in preserving family ties, he believes, as well as in using prison time to teach inmates the parenting skills they may not have developed on the outside. “We should do all we can to help these women when they’re in prison,” says Wayne. “One of our tasks is to educate, to send them back into the world better than they were.”

Sue Kennon concurs. “The majority of women in prison are not the monsters we are portrayed as by many politicians,” she wrote in an article that she submitted to several Virginia newspapers earlier this year. “We have made mistakes, wish to pay for them, and begin a new life with our children.” Unfortunately, all but one newspaper rejected her article. The rejections are only one indication of popular indifference, if not antagonism, to women like her—and, tragically, to the fate of their children. But as Warden Wayne maintains, with more and more female inmates swelling prison populations by the day, the issue cannot be avoided much longer. “People in Nebraska believe that all children deserve good beginnings,” says Wayne. “We believe they’re worth it. That’s not controversial.”



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