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How a Group of Female Inmates Won the Right to Live with Their Children

When the state of California announced that it was closing the only facility where prisoners could be with their kids, it was the women themselves who kept it open.

by Lauren Lee White
Jun 25 2015, 4:00am

Illustrations by Tyler Boss

The springtime sun blazes over East Arrow Highway in Pomona, California, and the glare off the whitish-gray concrete walkways forces everyone to squint. Regina Dotson moves busily in and out of her office on the second floor of a residential structure built in the style of a standard Southern California roadside motel. Dotson is middle-aged and stylish; a cross embellished with a verse from Corinthians—"love is patient, love is kind"—stands on one of her filing cabinets. Prince plays softly on the radio as a series of young children run in from the balcony to ask for a piece of candy and a hug. Dotson reminds them to say "please" and "thank you."

It's hard to believe we're inside a prison.

"I love it here," Dotson says. "You come to work and you love on babies, and you get to be a part of a program that gives women an opportunity to change their lives. My husband says that I'm one of the few people that he knows that really likes their job."

Dotson is the sole correctional counselor assigned to oversee inmates at Prototypes, the only Community Prisoner Mother Program (CPMP) left in California. To get one of the 24 beds here, inmates must pass a comprehensive screening process, which takes into account the nature of their crime, their history of violence or lack thereof, and their mental, physical, and dental health. Hopeful applicants have been known to have all of their teeth pulled in an effort to meet dental health requirements—that's how badly prisoners covet these spots, which give them one of the rarest opportunities in the American incarceration system: the chance to be with their young children while they serve their time.

In much of the US, the notion that incarcerated mothers can be with their kids full-time sounds radical, but in other countries it's a given. A 2014 report from the Library of Congress surveyed 97 countries that allow young children to remain with their mothers, even if it means postponing the mother's sentence, including Kazakhstan, Colombia, and Iraq. Germany has granted female prisoners work-release assignments for "mothering," which lets women leave prison in the morning, tend to their children all day, and return to the prison at night. Germany, along with Mexico, Greece, and several other countries, make provisions for children to stay with their mothers on the inside well past the newborn nursery stage. Some states do too, whether through programs like California's CPMP, prison nursery programs in ten states, or alternative custody programs, which allow mothers to live with their children in a low-security residential setting. The US is one of four countries to allow the separation of newborn babies from their incarcerated mothers, usually within 24 or 48 hours of birth. The others are the Bahamas, Liberia, and Suriname.

In the past few decades, issues involving motherhood behind bars have become increasingly urgent: The number of women in prison rose 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, and seven out of ten of those women are mothers. According to a 2010 Pew survey, there were 120,000 mothers behind bars nationwide, and 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent.

The toll on these children is obvious; it's also quantifiable. The University of California-Irvine's Kristin Turney published findings in 2014 that children with an incarcerated parent experienced depression at rates more than three times higher than children without an incarcerated parent, as well as significantly higher rates of anxiety, attention deficit disorder, behavior problems, speech problems, asthma, obesity, epilepsy, and other conditions. For babies, psychic wounds may be even deeper: A 1996 Corrections Today article stated that "empirical evidence strongly suggests that the ability to feel concern or sympathy for others is impaired severely when the newborn infant is deprived of the love and nurturing of its mother."

"The state is paying for not only the mother in prison, but the child in foster care, and the destruction that causes among families."
–State Senator Carol Liu

"Hopefully some relative is taking care of" children with an incarcerated mother, says California State Senator Carol Liu, the author of recent legislation designed to help incarcerated mothers stay with their children. "But more likely they are winding up in our foster care system. Which means the state is paying for not only the mother in prison, but the child in foster care, and the destruction that causes among families."

In theory, CPMPs and alternative custody programs could mitigate some of that damage. But alternative custody is barely utilized, and CPMPs have been troubled since the first ones in the state launched in 1980. There were never more than ten of these facilities, and today Prototypes is the only one not shut down by the state. That's not to say that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation didn't try to close it. They did.

But then something unexpected happened: The inmates themselves fought to keep their mother-infant program open, and they won.

Illustrations by Tyler Boss

Veronica Sánchez arrived at Prototypes in 2010. It hadn't been an easy route. Her charge was grand theft, and as a nonviolent offender she had been granted a bed; her six-month-old son Andres could live with her until her release. Then prison bureaucrats lost her medical file, without which she couldn't be transferred to the CPMP. For weeks she was shuffled between cells and facilities while administrators considered how to proceed, at one point telling her she would need to remain at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla for six months to rebuild her file from scratch. Meanwhile, Andres was hitting seven months old. Then eight months old.

Finally, when Andres was 15 months old, the transfer came through. "So I made it," Veronica says, still sounding amazed five years later. "And then from there, I'm there."

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As we talk, Veronica's 16-year-old son, Ezequiel, stands in the kitchen of the three-bedroom house near Oxnard he shares with his mother and five siblings. He is wearing only the pants of his baseball uniform, listening to jazz through a tinny speaker, and cooking a feast of pancakes and eggs for Veronica and Andres, who is now five. The rest of the children are at their father's for the weekend, but Ezequiel prefers his mother's house. "You want some pancakes with that syrup?" he asks his little brother, who says frankly that he does not.

"We started to hear rumors. It gives me the chills to think about it now... They started to tell us our program might get closed too." –Veronica Sánchez

Ezequiel and his siblings were all over six years old at the time of Veronica's incarceration, which meant they were too old to join her in the CPMP. Veronica, pregnant with her seventh child—a girl this time—is drinking a cup of instant coffee at her dining room table on her one day off this week, remembering her stint at Prototypes, and the moment the inmates realized the program was under the axe. "We started to hear rumors. It gives me the chills to think about it now," she says. "They started to tell us our program might get closed too."

A year and a half after Veronica and Andres arrived at Prototypes, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) started closing its mother-infant prison programs one by one. Mothers and children from the closing programs got funneled to Pomona to finish out their sentences at Prototypes, and the doors shut behind them, for good. It was the first days of the implementation of the Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109), usually called simply "realignment." The act was the state's response to a 2011 US Supreme Court decision that atrocious conditions in California prisons amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. AB 109 was designed to reduce prison overcrowding by reshuffling low-level, nonviolent offenders out of state prisons and into county jails, and to ease prisoners' re-entry into the world outside of lockup upon release by incarcerating them in their home counties when possible, closer to friends and family.

According to Regina Dotson and the Prototypes website, that meant there weren't enough eligible women in state prisons to populate the CPMPs. Those few who would have qualified—whose crimes were non-serious, nonviolent, and non-sexual—were now being sentenced to county facilities, which have no relationship with CPMPs or any other type of co-residence program. Los Angeles County's primary jail for women, the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), allows women who give birth in custody just two days in an off-site hospital with their babies, or three days if they have a Caesarian section. There is a precedent for jail co-residence, however, in the nursery at Rikers Island in New York City, where newborns can stay with their mothers for up to a year. Asked whether such a program could be established in Los Angeles County, a spokesperson said, "While the Sheriff's Department is open to considering alternative programs, there are currently no programs of this type. Further information and research would be necessary to determine if such a program would fit with the unique demands of CRDF."

At the time of realignment, Veronica was the president of the Inmate Advisory Committee at Pomona, which is allowed to meet privately and discuss concerns without the presence of a corrections officer. As they learned of CPMPs closing across the state, women at the meetings were increasingly frightened that the Prototypes CPMP would be closed too, and that they would have to be separated from their children once again. Staff had told them no plans to shut down were on the horizon, but the women were not convinced.

"So I go to Ms. Dotson and I tell her, this is a concern of the population and honestly, we need some answers," says Veronica. Dotson arranged a meeting with the women and Ronald Babcock, then Captain of CDCR's Women and Children's Service Unit. Babcock "just tells us not to worry, and worst case scenario that [Prototypes] will just not take any more inmates and just wait 'til everybody there is done with their time [before closing]. Like, really hopeful stuff. They're just not taking anybody more in. But at least we're safe, you know? He reassured us like 10,000 times."

At the next Inmate Advisory Committee meeting, Veronica took the pulse of the room. She asked if they bought Babcock's reassurances, and they responded that they were skeptical. "And sure enough," Veronica says, soon after that the women were summoned to a mandatory meeting in the TV room. They weren't told what the meeting was about, but were told not to bring their children with them. "We knew it," she says. "A couple of the women started crying."

"So you pull this child from the system, bring them back to their mom, all hopeful, all happy, and then you put them back in the system?"
–Veronica Sánchez

While she waited for the meeting to begin, Veronica recalls, she started getting mad. Just tell us, she thought. A corrections officer looked at the women and said, "I want everybody to take a deep breath."

"Fuck you," said one of the inmates. "Spit it out."

So he gave them the news, straight-up. The CPMP at Prototypes would be closing, and the women would have two options: They could go back to prison, or to an alternative program in Bakersfield. In either case, the women would not be able to keep their children with them. Veronica remembers one woman sliding from her chair down to the floor, having an anxiety attack. Staff debated whether to call an ambulance.

"Some of [the children] were going to be picked up by child protective services," she says. "They were going to go to foster homes. These women fought the system to get their kids out! So you pull this child from the system, bring them back to their mom, all hopeful, all happy, and then you put them back in the system?"

After the meeting, the women were put on lockdown and programming was cancelled, with the rationale that emotions were running high and an inmate might do something desperate, like take her child and bolt (Ms. Dotson disputes that the inmates were put on lockdown). Some of the women lost heart, figuring that CDCR was a behemoth not worth taking on. Others decided they wouldn't go down without a fight.

Like the rest of the American incarceration system in general and California prisons in particular, CPMPs have had their share of problems. In 2007, there were two horrific incidents of medical neglect at the San Diego mother-infant prison program which nearly resulted in the deaths of two children, These events prompted representatives from a Bay Area group called Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) to visit the six mother-infant prison programs then active in California. They were not impressed. LSPC observers expressed concern for the children's physical and emotional safety, noting that only the Bakersfield facility showed any evidence that children lived there. The rest appeared like a "clinic or some sort of treatment facility for adults, not for children."

If Prototypes once looked barren, its appearance has changed in the last five years. Strollers, tricycles, scooters, and plastic sea creature–shaped vehicles are everywhere. A playground with a soft, padded floor stands in the center of the buildings. Rainbow and shamrock murals adorn the walls of the infants' nursery, and the Head Start classroom doors are hung with signs asking passersby to keep their voices down.

It's not an ideal place to live; it's still a prison. Inmates have complaints about the food, the medical care, the amount of required programming, the other women. "I don't ever want to do this again," says Whitney, a current Prototypes inmate with a one-year-old son. This is her third stint in prison. "I did it before, but I didn't have a husband before. I didn't have a kid. This has been the hardest term by far."

Some studies indicate that doing time with her child may help Whitney get out and stay out of the system. In one often-cited example, Nebraska mothers who were allowed to keep their children with them in that state's prison nursery program, the recidivism rate was 9 percent within five years. For mothers who gave birth while in custody and had to part from their baby right after delivery, the recidivism rate was 33.3 percent.

Although a host of practical and ethical limitations have prevented anyone from doing a comprehensive study on mother-infant co-residence programs like Prototypes, there is some evidence of positive outcomes for them as well. A team headed by Columbia University professor Mary Byrne looked at preschoolers, some of whom had spent up to the first 18 months of life in prison and some who had been separated from their incarcerated mothers. Their study, published in 2014, found a much-reduced risk of anxiety and depression for children able to stay with their mothers in prison, and concluded that "co-residence should be promoted as a best practice for incarcerated childbearing women."

The Prototypes prisoners had a more ground-level view of these programs—and they didn't want to give their children up. After that meeting where the coming closure was announced, a core group of nine women, out of the 24 inmates then at Prototypes, emerged as the leaders of the struggle. Veronica and her friend Denise, whose children often played together, were the most active. Using legal mail—a way for inmates to correspond with lawyers and counselors in confidence—Denise waged a relentless campaign. "It was a lot of letter-writing and it was a lot of praying. Every step of the way, I was writing every single senator," says Denise. Her correspondents included State Senator Loni Hancock, who works with State Senator Carol Liu on issues affecting incarcerated women, and Karen Shain, then the Policy Director at LSPC. (Shain was one of the investigators who had visited Prototypes in 2009.)

"The women were amazing," Regina Dotson recalls.

With the help of a determined and savvy Prototypes staffer (who declined to be interviewed for this article), the inmates arranged a meeting for March 23, 2012, with CDCR representatives, senators Hancock and Liu, and Shain, who Denise describes as "full-blown going to bat for us. She said, 'If I have to strap my body to the [Pacific Gas and Electric] pole out there, it's not gonna happen. They're not shutting you down.'" The journalist Lisa Ling would be there too, bearing witness.

The nine inmates sat around a table, each with photographs of their children propped up in front of them, facing the CDCR reps and the senators. The idea was to transform their children's fates from an abstract idea to a concrete image in the minds of attendees, to put a face to the children who might soon be swept away from their mothers by the pitiless tides of bureaucracy.

"It's outrageous to me that they smile and they're very pleasant, and they say, 'Oh, we're taking the best care [of these women]... But no, they're not." –Carol Liu

"That meeting got a little intense," Veronica laughs. She remembers one of the senators' aides grilling a CDCR rep about his nonresponsiveness via email, and the senators' growing impatience. They wanted to understand the CDCR's plans for the children about to be relocated, and they felt they weren't getting answers. "They were like, 'What are you going to do with these women? They need to know,'" Veronica says. "'And what's going to happen to the kids that are going back into the system? Are you going to help their mothers get them back later?' And all this stuff that put the Department of Corrections in this big old hot seat."

"You know, speaking to these people is like a shell game," says Senator Carol Liu, recalling her efforts to get answers from the CDCR at the meeting. "It's outrageous to me that they smile and they're very pleasant, and they say, 'Oh, we're taking the best care [of these women]... But no, they're not."

Ling told the CDCR reps that if the CPMP closed and separated the mothers from their children once again, she would take the story to NBC's Dateline. Then the meeting wrapped, and the women resigned themselves to waiting for a decision to be handed down from CDCR.

Afterward, Senator Liu was baffled. She doesn't buy the claim that realignment is responsible for the closure of California's CPMPs. "We still have close to 4,000 women in our state prison system, and I would think that at least 50 percent of them would benefit from a program like this," she says.

In 2010, Liu's frustration with the number of mothers incarcerated in California prisons led her to successfully co-sponsor California Senate Bill 1266, which established the Alternative Custody Program. ACP is designed to allow women who were their children's primary caregivers before their incarceration (a category that included approximately 6,500 women as of 2010) to live with their children in a low-security residential setting. The Alternative Custody Program was implemented in 2011—before realignment began—but has been so underutilized that this February, Liu authored a bill clarifying the criteria for eligibility. The bill insists upon a clear timeline for admission or rejection to the program (under the current system, applications can languish for months), and "clarifies that existing medical and psychiatric conditions are not a basis for excluding an inmate from the Alternative Custody Program." Of 7,200 applications that CDCR has received since 2011, only 460 women have been admitted to the program. (The bill's chances of making its way through the state legislature are uncertain.)

The maddening thing about that low number is that the program works, says Liu, pointing out that 90 percent of women who participate are able to finish the program without violating its rules and being ejected from it. Now they're out "living their lives," she says. She isn't sure why the CDCR is resistant to mother-infant co-residence programs, except that the current approach to corrections is "not a stick and a carrot, as far as I'm concerned. It's a stick and a club."

Phil Ladew is an attorney at the California CASA Association, a group that advocates for children caught up in the criminal justice system. He has a theory about why mother-infant prison programs are so unpopular. "One of the things we battle a lot, policy-wise, is this impression that prison is a punishment. And it is. We don't do a good job of rehabilitation even when we say that we're trying to do that," he says. "It just strikes people the wrong way, that we're making a prison into a palace, and that [inmates] care for their kids on the taxpayers' dime. It's really, in my mind, backwards thinking. It's a dime today, but a dollar tomorrow. Or more, if you don't spend the time."

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In Veronica's dining room, the afternoon is winding down; the house is quiet. Ezequiel is at baseball practice. Andres is curled up on an easy chair playing a video game. Veronica is eating a cookie, looking through the scrapbook she kept while she was at Prototypes, which is full of photographs and letters from her children and her niece.

She smiles, thinking of the day when the women were summoned for a second time to the TV room for a mandatory meeting. "This time, the note they posted on the office had a little smiley face," she says. "We tried to get the news out of the counselors, because we had to wait like 30 minutes before the meeting!"

The women went in and sat down. Everyone was smiling, staff and inmates alike. First, Dotson told them, the lockdown had been lifted. Second: The program was staying open, and the CDCR has signed a two-year contract with Prototypes, so it's certain that they'll be here for at least that long. That was enough time for all the women inside to finish their sentences in the company of their children.

"I jumped up I don't know how many feet, and [Ms. Dotson] started laughing," says Veronica. It was a small victory in a much larger war, but a victory.

Lauren Lee White is a freelance writer and a fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. She lives with her husband and son in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.