The soft-spoken young woman sitting on the floor with her toddler son playing with toy cars could easily be in any setting. A preschool. A child care center. Or her own living room.
Instead, she and her 22-month-old son live in the nursery of the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, where she is a serving a prison sentence.
“I’m a first time-mom in prison with my first kid,” said the woman, who is scheduled to be released in early January.
She is one of six women and their children in the Achieving Baby Care Success program, the only one of its kind in the Ohio prison system. She agreed to be interviewed as long as the newspaper does not publish her name or her son’s name or discuss the felony conviction that landed her in prison two years ago. She is in her early 20s and from a rural northeast Ohio county.
“I’m just thankful and blessed to be here,” she said. “To be able to take care of your kid and not have somebody else take care of your kid. 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.”
More women are incarcerated in Ohio’s jails and prisons, and that has led to an unusual sight: babies.
The nursery program at the Marysville prison has served 289 female prisoners and their children since it began in 2001. Of that group, 222 successfully completed the program, said Ronette Burkes, the reformatory warden.
“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. That want to be better parents,” Burkes said.
“These are children that are not ending up in the system. They’re going home with their mom.”
The state’s nursery program is open to a limited number of women who were pregnant when they entered prison and who agree to strict rules of conduct in order to keep their babies after they are born. They can only stay up to 36 months and are not eligible for the program if their sentences extend beyond that.
Getting into the nursery program is not easy and it is only available to women serving convictions for 4th or 5th degree felonies, and in some cases a 3rd degree felony. Their offenses must have been non-violent and they cannot have any convictions for crimes against a child.
Burkes says she watches the women grow up and become better mothers in the nursery.
“It certainly sobers them in a sense of letting go some of that selfishness and the selfish behaviors that they were practicing,” she said.
The mom interviewed works in prison admissions, has used her time in prison to earn a GED and is on the waiting list for office administration and web design classes.
It’s in prison, she said, where she reoriented her priorities.
“Now it’s about him,” she said. “For him, here and when I get out. 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.”
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. We also look more closely at the prison nursery program and what a day in Women’s Therapeutic Court is like for women drug offenders.