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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Bonding behind bars

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Holding her sleeping 8-week-old son Michael in her arms, Keisha Savage is at peace.

“I understand that I’m in prison, but having him here with me brings me a sense of comfort,” the 23-year-old, who is currently serving nine months for forgery in the Indiana Women’s Prison said. “I thank God that I qualified for this program because I truly don’t know how I would’ve reacted if he wasn’t with me.”

Beginning in April, Indiana became the sixth state in the nation with a prison system program that allows inmates to keep their newborns.

“The Wee Ones Nursery gives mothers who will be leaving 18 months from their delivery date an opportunity to bond with their child,” program director Kristen Herrmann said. “We provide these mothers with essential tools and positive skills to use upon their release.”

Currently, the program that is completely grant funded allows up to 10 imprisoned mothers to live in a cell large enough to accompany a baby crib and adult bed ensuring continual interaction between mother and child. Along with the usual four officers, a pediatrician and nurse are available to guarantee the safety and needs of the newborns are satisfied.

With the number of women in prisons increasing nationwide, the Indiana Women’s Prison created the Wee Ones Nursery as a precursor to its Family Preservation Program.

“The Family Preservation Program works to maintain a healthy bond between mothers, grandmothers or aunts and their children,” Herrmann said. “Through increased visitation hours and parental programs, inmates can continue that bond so that the child is not affected by the caregiver’s mistakes.”

After having 92 of the 100 women in the Family Preservation Program successfully reenter the outside world and not return to jail, Wee Ones helps provide that beginning foundational connection.

“When a child is separated from its mother during those critical first months, that bond is never established,” said Jessica Utter, 32, who is currently serving time for dealing cocaine. “I had two children while imprisoned and because a program like Wee One’s wasn’t available for me, I don’t know them and they don’t know me which will be a connection I will have to struggle to create once I leave here.”

While still pregnant, Utter heard about the Wee Ones program but since her expected release date isn’t until 2014 she didn’t qualify for the program.

“I had too much time to keep my baby here but luckily they had a nanny position available,” she said. “I have eight kids of my own and enjoy being a part of such a great program for mothers. Since being involved I’ve become CPR certified and have learned a lot of valuable skills which will help me when I return to my babies at home.”

Imprisoned women like Utter who have committed nonviolent offenses and have met the requirement of at least an eighth grade reading level can participate as nannies providing the mothers with a caregiver during class or whenever relief is needed.

Both mothers and nannies are required to become cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certified and actively participate in classes including child development, parenting skills and family therapy on a daily basis.

“The conduct and attitude of the women involved determine their continuation within the program,” Herrmann said. “We have set schedules and expect involved women to abide by the requirements of the program because this is a privilege. Overall, I’ve seen a boost in the morale of the entire facility and an added confidence to the mothers.”

In August, Savage plans on returning home to her 4-year-old son, who currently lives with her mother, with baby Michael in hand.

“Wee Ones has helped provide some relief for my mother who currently has my other son,” she said, while still holding the sleeping newborn. “Since being involved in this program, I’ve seen a change in me for the better. I know it’s going to be a rough transition for me when I get out especially being a single parent with two children, but I feel more prepared now.”

For more information, call (317) 639-2671 or visit www.in.gov/idoc.

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