Cosmic Cocktail in 2 weeks: Get your ticket today before they sell out.

Prison system separates mothers from babies After giving birth, inmates must go back to prison cells. PREGNANT AND IN PRISON

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Against all odds, Sharon Gross, inmate No. 906-697, found joy in the birth of her son Hakeem.

Gross, a 30-year-old Baltimore woman serving four years for cocaine possession, struggled through 19 hours of labor in shackles and handcuffs. The restraints came off only when she was ready to deliver.

No friend or relative was allowed in the hospital to hold her hand and there were no little gifts for Gross after her ordeal -- prison rules prevented her from bringing anything back to jail.

Finally, only 36 hours after giving birth, Gross went home -- to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. Hakeem went with Gross' sister, Anita, to his new home in East Baltimore.

"It hurt me so much that I had to leave that infant there . . . knowing what I had gone through," says Gross. "I asked God please let everything be OK."

Gross has seen her son only a handful of times since he was born last August.

"I'm not sorry I had the baby, it's what I wanted," Gross says now. "I just wish I was there with him to see him grow up. By the time I leave here, he'll be a year and some months old. He doesn't even know who his mother is."

Gross was one of 37 women who gave birth last year while incarcerated in the state prison in Jessup -- an experience punctuated by the humiliation of going in chains to the hospital and by the heartbreak of saying goodbye to newborns within hours of their birth.

"I hoped I caught a temperature so they wouldn't release me from the hospital," remembers Dawn Dickey, a prisoner who gave birth to a daughter last December. "I told them everything was wrong with me. It didn't fool them.

"Oh boy, did I cry. I cried and I cried and I cried."

Unlike some states, Maryland does not allow incarcerated mothers to keep their newborns.

"They have to say goodbye. The baby is whisked off. They're in handcuffs," says Beth Berman Bounds, a social worker who helps the women find a home for their babies. "It can be devastating."

*

Pregnant inmates receive medical care at the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore. While the medical care is good, according to several prisoners, trips to the hospital are an exercise in embarrassment.

On the morning of an appointment at the hospital, the woman, no matter how pregnant, must disrobe. Naked, she squats and coughs while a female guard watches and checks for contraband.

The women ride shackled and handcuffed to the hospital, where they are taken first to an isolated ground-floor room known as the bullpen. One at a time, they are taken upstairs to the back door of the sixth-floor pregnancy clinic.

"They shackle you like a dog," says Linda Williams, a 34-year-old inmate from Silver Spring who is due to deliver in June. "My first visit to the clinic was the worst experience of my life. I cried all day when I got back. I felt so humiliated."

The goal of the hospital staff is to whisk the prisoners in and out of appointments, avoiding the crowded waiting room where several women sit watching television. Adding to the embarrassment, inmates occasionally run into pregnant friends waiting in the clinic.

The image of cuffed hands resting on protruding bellies is a turnoff for the hospital staff as well as the inmates. But prison security requires them.

"It is a problem we have often pondered -- how to adequately provide help for these women and maintain an appropriate public image," said Cassandra M. Watkins, the chief nurse in the University pregnancy clinic.

Once in the clinic, the prisoners see the same nurses and doctors as the other women.

"I treat them just like any other patient," says Edith Hitch, a nurse in the pregnancy clinic.

For some of the women, the experience is anything but joyful, she says. "Some are hard core. You give them the information like anyone else, but then I get the feeling they don't care, they just have to have the baby."

*

Linda Nitterright is pregnant and jammed into an overcrowded prison with more than 750 other women, but she feels alone. Nitterright, a 27-year-old South Baltimore woman serving 12 months for cocaine possession, is due to deliver her third child in late May. These days, she is on the verge of panic. There is a chance she will still be in prison when the baby comes and she has nobody outside to take care of the child. The father of the child she is carrying doesn't even know she is pregnant, she says. "I had no way to get in touch with him."

Her parents have their own problems. Her 19-year-old brother, to whom she was close, killed himself two years ago while jailed on drug charges. And the father of her daughter was shot to death in an argument over a woman.

Nitterright got pregnant the first time in the 11th grade and never finished high school. Her career as a cosmetologist ended, she says, because of her drug use. Her habit cost her as much as $400 a day. Nitterright says she was still snorting heroin and cocaine just before her arrest, unaware she was pregnant. She went through heroin withdrawal in the Baltimore City Jail, helped the somewhat soothing effect of blood pressure pills she bought from other prisoners. "I pray there is no damage to the baby," she says.

Since she was locked up last October, Nitterright has seen her daughter, 9, and son, 4, only once each. She sometimes phones her daughter, who lives with her father's sister. But her son, who lives with his father, is out of reach -- his family has placed a block on their phone to stop any calls from prison.

Nitterright's words tumble out in great waves. Her dark brown, shaggy hair frames a face dominated by serious, dark brown eyes.

"I already know what it's like to have a baby," she says. "But I didn't know what it was like to be a parent."

She sounds like a model prisoner, going to church, working and attending Narcotics Anonymous. Nitterright repeatedly brings up the way she has grown in prison, sounding as though she is trying to convince herself of her own worth.

"I made it through. I'm a soldier. A lot of this has been unpleasant, but I have to go on. I have to live for myself. I have to live for my baby."

*

If she were imprisoned in some other states, Nitterright might not have to worry about where her newborn baby would go. Women in New York, for example, are allowed to bring their babies back to prison for up to 18 months. At the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, just north of New York City, women take care of their own newborns.

"I think infant development research shows that that first bonding between mother and child is very, very critical to the infant for the rest of their lives," says Elaine A. Lord, superintendent of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. "Incarceration otherwise truncates that and the child will bond with someone else. It makes it more difficult when the woman goes out."

Two New York women's prisons have day-care centers staffed in part by trained inmates, which allow the mothers to attend classes or work at a prison job. Older children are encouraged to visit the prison for special holiday and summer sessions with their mothers, Lord said.

In Maryland, many of the women who return to prison without their babies leave them with a family member -- usually their own mothers. The father of the infant occasionally takes custody. But sometimes there is no one, which means the baby ends up in foster care.

Rarely do women give up the babies for adoption. "I think there's a stigma to adoption," said Bounds, the social worker at University Hospital who makes sure each baby is headed to an adequate home. "They don't want anybody to know about [giving up a baby for adoption]. They don't even want the guard to hear it."

Out of about 6,400 children in foster care statewide, 192 are there because their parent or parents are incarcerated, according to Steve Howe, head of the state foster care program. In Baltimore, 63 children are in foster care, out of about 2,000, because their parents are incarcerated.

It's a small but troublesome group of cases. Newborns of incarcerated mothers, Howe says, are in a particularly difficult situation. "All their physical and emotional bonding gets done with someone else," he says.

*

Doctors at University say nearly every inmate pregnancy can be considered high-risk. Female prisoners are often longtime drug users, which can hurt fetal development. Some pregnant prisoners who were hooked on heroin on the streets remain on methadone during the pregnancies to avoid forcing the fetus to go through heroin withdrawal, according to doctors at University.

Pregnant inmates often have high blood pressure and poor nutrition (thanks in part to the ready access to junk food in the prison), and many smoke cigarettes, all of which leads to a large number of undersized babies. A few of the women carry the AIDS virus.

But for some of the women, being pregnant in prison may be a blessing because prison officials, working with the University medical staff, make sure they go for regular checkups. Having a mother behind bars -- and presumably away from drugs, alcohol and prostitution -- may be a blessing of sorts for the baby, as well.

"Probably the children are better off being born under those situation than having Mom out taking dope on the street," said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe. "I can visualize the instance where it's in the baby's far better interest to be born in jail and taken away from the mother."

Nitterright might agree with Bothe, up to a point.

"I thank God I'm here because I might be going down the road with [drugs]," she says.

But with her addiction controlled and her will to carry on revived, Nitterright says she is determined to get out and reclaim her two older children and raise her newborn. According to her calculations, she will be released at about the same time she is due to deliver in late May or early June. "I just keep my mouth shut and try to stay out of trouble.

"I don't have anybody out there," she says. "I'm afraid I'll have to give my baby to the state. That's the last thing I want to do."

Sharon Gross, her eyes ringed by enormous pink glasses, remembers the despair of landing in prison pregnant. "I don't know . . . I was crying . . . I wanted to be home with my other two kids. I would say, 'Please, God, give me another chance.' " Gross won't have her next parole hearing until October, when her son, Hakeem, will be 14 months old. She has been taking classes and drug counseling in prison, but her prospects outside are murky at best.

"Do you think I can get a job at the Sunpapers when I get out?" she asks at the end of an interview.

For Dawn Dickey, the next milestone will come in October, when she marks two years clean of heroin. A few weeks later, her third child, Dawn Kari, will celebrate her first birthday at home with her grandmother in northwest Baltimore. Dickey, 26, will probably be locked up several more years on her 10-year sentence for smuggling heroin. But her three children visit regularly.

"You only get an hour," Dickey says. "By the time they tell me what's going on in their little lives, the hour is up." Her oldest child, Tameka, age 8, takes it the hardest. "She holds it in, but being her mother, I can see it's hurting her. My son always says, 'I want to stay with you.'

"Seeing the baby really drives me crazy. But I see she's being taken care of, she's being fed. So it's bearable."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°