For a brief moment on a rainy weekday morning in Gig Harbor, Washington, Karen Garcia looks like any other mom getting her 2-year-old daughter ready for the day ahead. She gets her dressed, helps her brush her teeth and puts her into her stroller as they make their way to daycare.
But Garcia’s life with her daughter, Aryanna, is far from typical.
“For a moment everything seems normal,” Garcia tells PEOPLE. “And then I’m reminded where I am because there are barbed-wire fences everywhere.”
Since November 2015, the 40-year-old mom has been an inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. When she arrived — after being found guilty of selling methamphetamine and a firearm and sentenced to 60 months in prison — Garcia was seven months pregnant. Washington is one of only 11 states in the country that offers a prison nursery to inmates with young children. Under the Residential Parenting Program (RPP), which was founded in 1999, women in the minimum-security facility with sentences up to 30 months can apply to keep their children with them until they’re released.
But Garcia would end up being the exception to the rule because of her long sentence.
“The only thing I could do was fight for my daughter,” says Garcia, who gave birth on Feb. 2, 2016. “I could fight to get into the program. I just wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
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Although she had a five-year sentence, 20 months would be waived for good behavior, making her 10 months over the 30-month requirement.
Karen Garcia, her daughter Aryanna and Officer Dodson
She wrote to prison officials pleading her case and when she found out she’d been accepted, she says, it was “a feeling I’ll never forget. . . . My mornings are better here than they would be if I was home. My daughter doesn’t see any of the things that I’ve seen before I got here. She gets to wake up to a mother who loves her unconditionally. This is my second—and only—chance.”
Since Aryanna was born, Garcia’s life couldn’t look more different than the one she lived before, which was filled with drugs, alcohol and repeated bad decisions.
Watch the full episode of People Features: Raising a Baby Behind Bars, streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.
Already a mother to a son who she had when she was 18-years-old, Garcia says she’s now determined to be the parent she failed to be to him and also wants to continue to repair their relationship when she’s released.
“I didn’t want to abandon my daughter like I did my son so many years ago,” she says. “This program has strengthened me and has given me the ability of get clean and sober.”
Through the Residential Parenting Program, she’s received drug treatment and therapy and has learned how to do everything from prepare healthy meals and change diapers to bath-time safety.
It’s also helped her find the motivation to join the prison’s Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching program, where she has been learning carpentry skills and hopes to secure a well-paid job with labor-union benefits pending her release on Feb. 23, 2019—just one day before her 41st birthday.
When Garcia leaves, she can’t wait to focus on the “small things,” like watching Aryanna chew gum for the first time and reuniting with her husband, Jason Garcia, who hasn’t yet met Aryanna, but is the person she calls “daddy.”
“I’ve opened my eyes and changed my life around. I’m not a bad person, but I made bad choices,” Garcia says. “Your past doesn’t have to define you, and it doesn’t define your future.”