I’m thrilled to announce that my article, “Raising Babies in Prison”, appears in the Winter 2011 episode of YES! Magazine. It’s about the Residential Parenting Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, which allows selected pregnant, non-violent inmates in the minimum-security wing to raise their babies for 30 months in prison.
I’ve interviewed many people for articles, and it’s been inspiring to hear their stories, to focus on actively listening to them, and to weave their words into articles. But until now, I’d been writing articles about green entrepreneurs and social activists. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled up I-5 to Gig Harbor in September to visit a prison and sit down with an inmate.
I had to go through security and walk through a razor-wire fence to get to the J-Unit, an H-shaped building in the prison’s minimum security wing, where up to 20 mothers at a time live with their babies. I met with Erika Freeman in an empty administrative office. Across the hall, inmates in prison uniforms – gray sweat suits, white socks, and black plastic sandals – sprawled across couches and chairs and watched TV in the day rooms.
Freeman is 26 and friendly. She drank coffee from a plastic cup as she told me about the crimes that brought her to WCCW, the terrifying months she spent in Closed Custody, when she didn’t know if she’d get into the program or have to part with her newborn, and about bonding with her daughter Riley. I walked away inspired by Freeman’s courage to change her life, by her determination to help other young women not end up where she is, and by the power of family bonds, especially those between parents and children, to heal us.
As with every interview I’ve done, I was also amazed by how powerful the act of listening to someone’s story is – for both the teller and the listener. It’s something we can do for free by just calling or visiting someone, asking questions, and focusing on listening, yet, we seem to do it less and less in our hurried culture.
A few weeks ago, after I’d finished writing and editing the article, my next door neighbor knocked on my door, and asked if I’d seen the local paper that day. “Your prison moms are in there,” she told me.
It turned out that the Portia Project was sponsoring a conference at the University of Oregon on women and prison. Cheryl Hanna Truscott, a photographer who has documented the women and babies in the Residential Parenting Program for seven years, would be displaying her photos that evening. She was the first person I interviewed about the program, and her beautiful photos accompany my article. I wanted to meet her in person, but it was short notice, and I couldn’t make it that night.
The next afternoon, I went to campus, hoping to see the photos and perhaps sit in on a lecture or two. I had no idea what the agenda was, or if Truscott would still be around. When I walked into the lecture hall, I recognized the speaker’s voice immediately. It was Marie-Celeste Condon, a researcher I’d interviewed. Many of the other people I’d talked to for the article were sitting on the stage, and Erika Freeman’s parents were there. It felt like a cosmic moment, like I was supposed to write this story and be in this room – even though both occurrences had seemingly happened by accident.
It was great to meet everyone in person, to talk to Freeman’s parents, and to hear the stories of a few more of the mothers who’ve gone through this program, which I’m now convinced is a beacon of hope in our Corrections system.
So if you get a chance, I hope you’ll check out this issue of YES! Magazine. (Coincidentally, it includes a feature by Jeremy Adam Smith, who was my editor at Shareable.net until he left recently for a Knight Fellowship at Stanford, as well as photos by Patrick Barber, who I interviewed last November for an article about the Eastside Egg Cooperative in Portland.) I’ll post a link to my article, when it’s available online.