New program gives prisoners chance to mother

July 10, 2010 4:54:03 AM PDT
Placid, sweet-natured, Heaven is a "little package of joy." Only 5 weeks old, she exudes classic infant charm. Dumpling cheeks dominate her face. A tuft of black hair crowns her tiny head. Her baby eyes glow with the wisdom of the ages.

Kristy Winburne, Heaven's mother, notices such things. Doing a 6-month state jail stint for theft, she has time to notice such things.

Winburne, 30, calls her situation "a blessing."

Until April, her fate -- and that of her baby -- would have been much different. She would have given birth, the infant handed to a foster parent and Winburne again locked up to serve her time.

Winburne and Heaven, though, are reveling in the life of BAMBI -- the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative. Mandated by the 80th Texas Legislature, the program gives select state jail inmates the chance to live and bond with their newborns.

Operated out of the Santa Maria Hostel, a northeast Houston facility for troubled women, the program offers young mothers life skills and substance abuse counseling, classes leading to a GED and a crash course in parenting. The idea, said Santa Maria CEO Kay Austin, is to give the baby a wholesome start and the mother an incentive to stay straight.

"Our concern has been with the ability of the mother to form a bond with the baby, but that's not our only concern," Austin said. "The child -- that's the big issue here. When you have a child with an attachment disorder, you've got people going through TDCJ again and again. We're trying to break that cycle."

Becky Price, deputy director of TDCJ's rehabilitation programs division, said the state's program is patterned after a similar effort at a Fort Worth federal prison. At its core, the program, which is supported by the University of Texas Medical Branch and other organizations, strives to instill a sense of responsibility in women who previously acted irresponsibly.

"This is the 'ah-ha' moment in terms of learning and accepting responsibility," said UTMB's BAMBI program manager Liz Moore. "It's a very positive time in a woman's life."

A typical day, Moore said, starts early with a group session at which the women -- six currently are in the program, two others have been released -- set goals for the day. The women are required to compose a written plan for meeting short- and long-term goals. Except for brief periods, the care of the infants is in their hands.

BAMBI participants typically have been convicted of crimes such as forgery, theft and minor drug offenses. As such, they are assessed sentences of two years or less and remanded to a state jail, Price said. In late February, the most recent month for which records are available, 65 of the state's 11,007 female prisoners were pregnant.

Women guilty of violent crimes, sex offenses or arson are not eligible for BAMBI. Program coordinators generally choose women who are scheduled to be released within six months.

"We give them as many resources as we can," Moore said. "They leave here with Medicaid, with WIC in place, with birth certificates applied for. We try to give them as much support as we can before they get out and try to figure it out for themselves."

Despite its unsettling aspects, some inmate mothers find giving birth and interacting with their newborns in a prison setting provide a newfound clarity.

"I realize there is a better life than crime and being in trouble," said convicted thief Desiree Wilson, 20, whose son, Aventae, is 2 months old. "Now, I have a baby and I'm loving it."

Kortny Courtney, 32, discovered she was pregnant two weeks after she arrived at a state jail to serve one year on a drug rap.

"I was scared to death," she said. "The thought of giving birth and being separated from the child was really weighing on me."

Courtney, who is the mother of two girls, ages 9 and 14, was "extremely thrilled" when told she might be eligible for the BAMBI program. But even when things go well, prison is daunting.

On March 26, more than a week before the program began, Courtney gave birth to a son, Dylan. In the brief birth-to-BAMBI interim, Dylan was placed with a caretaker. "Being without him was just torture," his mother said.

Courtney, who plans upon release in August to work in a family business and study cosmetology, said the program has changed her worldview.

"I have set better goals for myself. I don't have to do the same thing over and over again," she said.

Like Courtney, Winburne, who had two children before entering prison, credited the program with changing the way she viewed life.

"I think I have benefited from being here," she said. "I'm ready to get back out there, to take care of my kids."

Heaven, who sleeps through the night except for brief wakeful interludes at 2 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., seemed blase as her mother emotionally described how she would do better when released.

"Oh my God, she's her own little person," Winburne said of her new daughter. "She just looks like all of us. I look at her and I see all of us in here and that's really special. ... I think I'm going to cry."


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