Behind the tall barbed-wire fences at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington, 14 of the inmates have a special focus: motherhood.
As part of the Parenting Residential Program (PRR) that’s been in existence since 1999, more than a dozen pregnant woman in the minimum-security facility with sentences up to 30 months can apply to keep their children with them until they’re released.
For all of those inmates, including Karen Garcia — who came to prison seven months into her pregnancy — the program has given them a “second chance” to get their lives back on track and raise their babies in a safe environment.
“This program has saved my life,” Garcia tells PEOPLE. “It’s made me into a mother I never could have been if I were out on the streets.”
Sonja Alley, the correctional-unit supervisor for the program, says the best part of her job is seeing their transformations unfold.
“It’s rewarding to see them recognize their faults, work on their faults, and in turn become better people and better mothers,” says Alley, who gives the woman support and advice on a daily basis. “We encourage women to not only support each other but really work on their self-worth and appreciate the opportunity that they’ve been given.”
• For more on Karen Garcia’s story and the Residential Parenting Program, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
Alley says she is always determining what is in the best interest of the child.
“Certainly, in the majority of cases, I feel like the child needs to be with their mother,” she says. “Some say that the mom doesn’t deserve their child in prison. Maybe that is true, but the child certainly deserves their mother.”
In Garcia’s situation, Alley says that she’s “advocated for her daughter from the beginning and she has really transformed as a person.”
When she arrived at the facility— after being found guilty of selling methamphetamine and a firearm and sentenced to 60 months in prison — she had to fight to get into the program because of her long sentence.
Although she had a five-year sentence, 20 months would be waived for good behavior, making her 10 months over the 30-month requirement.
After getting accepted, which she recalls being “a feeling I’ll never forget,” she’s been able to get drug treatment, stay sober and learn how to do everything from chance diapers to prepare healthy meals and bath time safety.
But most importantly, it’s kept her daughter, Aryanna, off the “hard streets,” where Garcia spent so much of her life, and given her the confidence to leave prison with the confidence and skills to be a great mom.
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“I’ve opened my eyes and changed my life around,” says Garcia, whose daughter was born on February 2, 2016. “I’m not a bad person, but I’ve made bad choices. Your past doesn’t have to define you, and it doesn’t have to define your future.”
Each mom shares a room with their child and after waking up early, they cook their little ones breakfast or make their way to the dining hall.
For Garcia, who also has a 23-year-old son, she drops Aryanna off at Early Head Start, an on-site daycare. She then makes her way to the prison’s Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching Program where she is learning carpentry skills and hopes to secure a well-paid job with labor-union benefits pending her release on February 23, 2019.
“I’m going to be able to get out, be a mom and have a career,” she says.
When she’s released, she plans to move in with her uncle in Auburn, Washington, where she can get a fresh start, and will reunite with her husband who is also in prison and has a tentitive release date of April 30, 2019.
Garcia’s mother, Cheryl Thoenes, 62, who lives in Spanaway, Washington, says that she’s watched Garcia evolve into a strong women since entering the program.
“Her whole life revolves around that little girl,” she says. “She’s become a fierce mother and the woman that I always wanted her to be. It’s a miracle.”