The locked door swings open and the grey walls of the Ohio Reformatory for Women give way to splashes of bright green and blue, the sound of children giggling and mothers softly soothing babies inside the prison nursery where six inmates live with their children.
A blond two-year old boy in leg braces eagerly greets a visiting reporter and photographer, giving his own impromptu tour of the place he’s called home since he was born.
It seems incongruous — babies and toddlers living with their inmate mothers inside a prison that houses more than 2,600 women.
But Prison Warden Ronette Burkes said the Achieving Baby Care Success nursery program is one way the prison system can help women convicted of felonies turn around their lives. It is the only one of its kind in the state and Burkes said fewer than 10 other states allow inmates to keep their babies in prison.
“We have mothers in here that have come to prison who have made a mistake and that want to raise their children, want to have an active role in their children’s life,” Burkes said. “That want to be better parents.”
An inmate who lives with her 22-month old son in the nursery agreed to be interviewed and allowed photographs as long as her name and that of her son is not published. She also would not discuss the felony conviction that landed her in prison two years ago.
“I’m a first time mom in prison with my first kid,” said the woman, who is in her early 20s, from a rural northeast Ohio county and scheduled to be released in early January.
“I’m just thankful and blessed to be here. To be able to take care of your kid and not have somebody else take care of your kid,” she said. “So even though I’ve made mistakes my son still gets to be really lucky to be with me and to have me change for him.”
She works in prison admissions and has used her time in prison to earn a GED. She is on the waiting list for office administration and web design classes. And, she said, she’s learning to be a mother.
“Now it’s about him. For him, here and when I get out,” she said. “Right now my plan is to get out, find a job, continue going to school. I want to go to school for something I can have a career for.”
The nursery program has served 289 female prisoners and their children since the nursery opened in 2001. Of that group, 222 successfully completed the program, Burkes said.
“We know women are coming to prison. They’re the fastest growing population. And women come to prison pregnant,” Burkes said. “This gives mom and baby an opportunity to not only bond but to establish a relationship and for mom to establish some parenting skills.”
The opiate epidemic sweeping the nation and Ohio is fueling a rise in women prisoners across the state. In Ohio, 838 women have arrived at prison pregnant — and in some cases addicted — since 2011. They are held at the Franklin Medical Center, a prison hospital, until they have the babies and then are sent back to prison to serve out their sentences. The babies are sent home with family or placed by Children Services.
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Just six inmates are currently in the nursery program, down from some of the totals in previous years and well below the program’s capacity of 24 inmates. Burkes said she is not sure why the numbers have declined but noted that babies born addicted to drugs are typically not accepted into the program because of the additional care needed.
The nursery program accepts women who were pregnant when they entered prison, were convicted only of nonviolent offenses and who do not have any convictions for crimes against a child. They also must agree to strict rules of conduct.
The women can stay up to 36 months and are not eligible for the program if their sentences extend beyond that.
Burkes said she’s seen women mature and become better mothers in the nursery.
“It certainly sobers them in a sense of letting go some of that selfishness,” she said.
The inmate with the 22-month-old son said motherhood has made her less focused on herself .
“I have him to worry about so that’s a lot to think about,” she said. “I have a big responsibility. Somebody else to take care of, somebody else’s needs before mine.”
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ABOUT THIS PROJECT: See our story about the impact of rising numbers of incarcerated women, some pregnant and addicted to drugs, on Ohio’s county jails and prison system.Today you’ll see what a day in Women’s Therapeutic Court is like for women drug offenders.
MORE ON TV: Today, May 14, WHIO Reports takes a look at this issue at 11:30 a.m. on WHIO-TV Channel 7.