I just finished up my special report called Born Behind Bars. It profiles a program in which Washington inmates are allowed to keep their babies while serving time in prison. Even though it was a 6 1/2 minute story (about 5 minutes longer than a typical news story), there are things I just didn’t have time to include. I hope if you have any questions or comments about the program, you’ll share them here or on the story on kxly.com. It’s our taxpayer money paying for these programs – the more we understand the better.
1. I’ve wanted to do this story for about 8 years. I heard about it shortly after I moved to Washington and couldn’t believe my ears; precious babies kept in prison? I was both fascinated a little horrified. Instead of making a snap judgment about the program, I decided to do some research and found that, while it’s still a scary place for anyone to be, these kids and their moms were actually doing well. It’s the best part of my job – being able to research things I find interesting and share them with you.
2. I’ve rarely seen a happier group of babies. The kids in that prison are surrounded by razor wire. They share acreage with some dangerous women who have done some very bad things. But, every single baby was smiling and happy the entire four hours we spent with them. We didn’t get to spend nearly enough time showing you the Early Head Start program and hearing from the women who staff it. What an incredible group – and, what they’re doing for these kids and their moms is amazing. They come to work and have to be searched to get in, then they have to walk through gates and metal detectors to get to their jobs. Most had never set foot inside a prison before they took this job. Several of them told me it’s the best job they’ve ever had. The kids are engaged, happy, smiling, using sign language, learning, etc. And, despite what these moms might tell you, there’s no way these kids would be getting that same treatment outside the prison. They see a doctor once a month, their moms get pre and post-natal care and they are loved by the people who work with them.
3. The Department of Corrections gave us no real restrictions on this story. We followed the usual guidelines for videotaping in prison, we had to be pre-screened and we had to be searched before we entered. The women who agreed to be on camera had to sign a release beforehand (the same thing happens when we do stories inside schools). Aside from that, DOC simply let us in, then stepped back. Some people may see what they feel is my positive spin on this story and assume DOC steered the direction of it. As a journalist, I would never allow that to happen. But, DOC didn’t try. They were in the midst of their own ordeal (we were there 2 days after Jayme Biendl’s funeral, the woman killed by an inmate at Monroe). This is a program they’re proud of, but they never tried to “spin it” – they simply told us what it is, warts and all. Fortunately for them, they aren’t too many warts on this one.
4. I believe the women can change. Of the four women we interviewed, I believe three of them when they say they won’t end up back in prison. I won’t say which ones – and, not everyone made it into our story. I’ve interviewed a lot of inmates and most of them refuse to take responsibility for what they’ve done. These women, the ones I believe will succeed, didn’t hold anything back. They simply shared their life story and told us how they were going to change. Seeing how they’re children are thriving, they don’t want to mess that up when they get out. Could I be wrong? Yep. But, I choose to be optimistic that what they’re doing is making them better people.
5. It’s still prison. Contrary to what you might think, I didn’t walk out of there thinking, “Wow, awesome! These women are so lucky!” We saw the hard reality, too. When we were done, we got in our car, went out to lunch along the waterfront in Gig Harbor, then drove home to our kids. I put my son to bed, took a hot bath and went to my own room to sleep. I couldn’t help but think of the women we just left; they can’t come and go as they please, they wear the same prison-issued clothes every day and they sleep in the same room with their children every night. They have very few freedoms – and, they don’t see their other kids or the rest of their family except, if they’re lucky, on visiting day. Do they deserve to be there? You bet. They committed serious crimes and are in prison for a reason. But, I have to disagree with all the people posting on the story who say “how lucky, they get everything taken care of”. Anyone who’s ever been in prison – especially pregnant or with a child – will tell you there’s nothing fun about it. And, guess what: most of these women would be getting state benefits whether they were in the prison or not. We’re already paying for it, we might as well get our money’s worth.
I understand not everyone will share my opinion about the validity of this program. Most of you will say that these women deserve to be punished for what they did. I agree. But, the kids didn’t do a thing – they have nothing to be punished for. And, if being with mom is safer and better in the long run than being in foster care or bouncing from family member to family member, why not give that a try?
I welcome all your comments and questions, even if you want to call me a bleeding-heart liberal! Open dialogue is what makes the world go ’round.
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