BALTIMORE – Cribs and adult beds stand side by side in the pastel rooms, where handmade flowers adorn the windows. Toys and a comfortable rocker are central to the common area.
It doesn’t look like a prison, but this is a new kind of detention center just-opened in Baltimore where pregnant inmates serving light sentences can get themselves ready for motherhood and their babies prepared to meet the world.
After overcoming a year long delay and an array of obstacles, Tamar’s Children, a “multi-collaborative effort” to serve these prison moms, involving more than 30 state agencies and other organizations, opened its doors at its temporary location at the Walter P. Carter Center in downtown Baltimore.
Tamar, an acronym for Trauma Addiction Mental Health and Recovery, is also the name of a biblical rape victim. It’s a program designed to offer services the organizers hope will lead to a decrease in criminal behavior by these expectant mothers, who the project director describes as “perhaps the most disdained population in the criminal justice system.”
The women, incarcerated or on parole or probation, will simultaneously serve out their sentences and learn how to bond with their newborn babies. As of last week, five women were admitted to the 18-resident center.
“Once we get going we’re going to have more than we can handle,” said Joan Gillece, director of the special populations office within the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
In 2000, there were 209 pregnant inmates in the Baltimore City Detention Center alone, Project Director Andrea Karfgin said. State figures were unavailable. The figure actually may be much higher because some women don’t identify their condition and others stay so briefly in the system.
Not all pregnant, incarcerated women are eligible. Violent criminals, for example, are excluded.
Women are selected with the help of prisons, state agencies, public defenders, prosecutors and judges said Ainisha Persaud, program executive director. And their sentences must fit in that window of opportunity where they are convicted of less-serious crimes, but serving long enough to complete the program’s curriculum, estimated at six to nine months, she said.
Though the program is restricted, supporters said that without Tamar’s Children, prison life for incarcerated pregnant women and new mothers is hopeless. In the general population, for example, a mother is separated from her child within 48 hours of delivery and the infant is turned over to family or admitted to foster care.
“It’s such an unnatural process,” said Delegate Pauline Menes, D-Prince George’s, “(The system) ignored the natural development of motherhood and childbirth.”
But the efforts to change the system and open the facility were rough.
“I feel like I just gave birth and now I have the next 18 years to worry about,” said Karfgin.
The $4.5 million grant program was to have opened in March 2002, Persaud said. But it faced problems in finding a home – the Walter P. Carter center was the fourth – and a multitude of issues on liability, transportation and insurance. There were even reports that the program was scrapped.
Those delays have meant lost opportunities for pregnant women in the system.
“We would meet women in prison and tell them we were opening and then we wouldn’t open,” said counselor Claudine Daubenmire.
The Department of Safety and Correctional Services often bore the brunt of the blame for the delays.
Every time we thought we were opening, another problem, usually uncovered by the department, would appear, Karfgin said.
But Patricia Schupple, the department’s acting commissioner for the corrections division, said there were legitimate legal, location and funding issues that had to be addressed before the project kicked off.
“It may have been frustrating at times. (But now), I’m pleased and happy that we’re able to get this going,” Schupple said.
Schupple emphasized that women in the program, despite the facility’s low security, are not a risk to the community.
Ideally, a resident will spend her third trimester in the facility, and stay for the first six months of the baby’s life, Persaud said.
Staffed by three therapists and three case managers, Tamar’s Children starts residents with a program on mother-child interaction, and offers other counseling sessions for the women addressing prior trauma, substance abuse and mental health.
“It’s about removing the underlying issues so she can develop the capacity to mother,” said Gillece, who co-wrote the original grant proposal for the program with Karfgin.
New mothers also will get life skills training on proper nutrition, high school equivalency courses and will even learn how to balance their budgets.
After release, the mothers and infants are assisted in transition into their communities, including help finding a place to live.
“The whole support system will be put in place to help them . . . so that the child is not damaged psychologically and will not become a burden to society,” said Delegate Menes.
The process is intended to decrease recidivism among this unnoticed population and help the newborns get a promising start.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve encountered mothers and (their pregnant) daughters in the prison system,” Persaud said. “We’ve got to break the cycle somewhere.”
Seeing merit in Tamar’s Children’s goals, state legislators and judges banded together to fight for its existence and to show continuous support.
“We (women legislators) feel very strongly that mothers and their newly born babies need to have a period to bond,” said Adrienne Mandel, D-Montgomery, president of the Women Legislators of Maryland, “Rather than newborn babies literally snatched from their mothers who may be incarcerated.”