I always have a good time being surrounded by beautiful and well-cared for babies and toddlers. I get to witness their mothers learning new parenting skills at a time in life when a child's neurological development is rapid and significant.
I photographed two women and their babies living at the prison today. One was the pregnant woman in an earlier blog. She has a beautiful, healthy, 13-day old son now. The other is a woman who has three children, the third being a smiling, active 18 month old toddler. Towards the end of the photo session, I glanced at the bulletin board in their room. The mom talked to me about her chosen items: a sketched composite portrait of her children, another drawing of a heart with a dagger, and a paper chain with numbers on it.
Bulletin boards in the prison rooms tell stories. Each mom has one that she is able to decorate as she wants, lending a personalized slant to an institutional setting. The composite portrait was sketched by an inmate who only discovered her artistic abilities while incarcerated. The second drawing shows a tearful mother behind bars with the calligraphed names of the children she left behind. And the paper chain numbers are the woman's countdown months until she is released. The mom told me that she made a gift for her nine year old daughter out of a formula can wrapped in construction paper and decorated in "girly fashion". Inside the can was a similar paper chain. She made this for her daughter so that every month, her daughter can cut off a circle of paper. This will let her know when her mother is coming home.
I am always impressed by the depth of creativity that I see when I go into the prison.
I went back for my second day this week. There are 15 moms in the unit and I can only get to 2 or 3 in one session, so I have some catching up to do. This mom was just having a good time playing with her 18 month old son before his nap time and I managed to stand up on a chair to take this image. It makes me smile.Read More
First Day Back
I spent the few hours with two young women: one with her four-week old daughter and the other 37 weeks pregnant. I felt a little rusty, remembering how to work in the small spaces where each mother and baby pair live.
I know I’ve had a good time when I lose track of it, which is what I did. It felt right being around young mothers – one making a baby and the other breast-feeding hers. Benefits of breast-feeding are trickling down to offenders from the efforts made by public health nurses and midwives involved in applying this knowledge to incarcerated mothers. These days, a nurse-midwife is giving prenatal care within the prison clinic. Only two years ago, the pregnant women were driven to the midwifery setting in Lakewood.
Yesterday, I returned to the prison nursery for the first time in two and a half years. I needed the break, having been a regular volunteer there from 2003-2012, even serving on committees and focus groups, and attending distant workshops. This time around, I promised myself just to enjoy the photography, the moms, and their sweet offspring. Part of the deal is to serve as a witness to the struggles and growth of incarcerated mothers raising their babies in a difficult situation.
Not much seems to have changed since my last time there in 2012. But, the outside grassy areas are now abundantly cultivated into useful gardens, giving a sense of real purpose to the work done by some of the inmates. The plantings, including colorful flowers, liven up the dreary blue-grey barracks that serve to house several hundred minimum-security offenders. Otherwise, the sign on the entryway to the J Unit where the prison nursery is housed remains unchanged with the one misplaced adjective in an otherwise list of five nouns seeking to inspire those who cross the threshold: Reliable, Respect, Trust, Integrity, Honesty, Loyalty.
Probably the most poignant thing that happened yesterday was an unexpected encounter with an inmate that I knew from 2008. We both took a second look and drew closer together in surprise. Autumn had the same wide, warm smile that I remembered. One of her jobs was as a caregiver for some of the babies and toddlers. Autumn told me she is getting out on work release in August. Then she said, “I wish I could give you a big hug!” I smiled back, “Me too.” It brought back the memory of something she said in seven years ago that I wrote down: “And in prison, we don’t get to love. We don’t get to hug. We don’t get to love. But with the babies, we have this infant that has no mean intentions towards you at all… ever. Doesn’t even know what being mean means. And they love you and it’s unconditional.”
As we parted company - she going off to a job and me going off to photograph moms - Autumn and I exchanged a warm nod, “Well, consider yourself hugged, ok?” It is so hard to imagine spending years in confinement where human touch is not allowed. I think I would wither up.