Fresh hope for inmates, infants

The Baltimore Sun

Michelle Jones was in the kind of trouble from which Baltimore's young people often don't rebound.

Addicted to crack and heroin. Arrested for prostitution and possession. Alienated from her family, Jones had to cede custody of her 2-year-old son to her mother. And she was pregnant again.

Had Jones, 24, given birth while serving her sentence for those convictions in the Baltimore Women's Detention Center, she would have had to give up her baby. Instead, the court directed Jones to a new home for pregnant nonviolent offenders in Park Heights, where Jones can finish serving her sentence and some of her probation while getting clean and learning how to be a mother.

"I got tired of not having anything. I'm worth so much more," Jones said, seated on a chocolate-colored sofa in the center's freshly painted, bright blue lounge. "I was ashamed of being 24 years old and addicted to heroin. I was disappointed in myself."

Chrysalis House Healthy Start, a nonprofit operation that opened this summer as a collaborative effort among Maryland agencies, marks a rebirth of the only state-funded program to serve pregnant offenders exclusively. The state closed a similar program, Tamar's Children, last year amid squabbles among subcontractors.

Its demise after four years frustrated state officials and several local judges who had seen it start to help a chronically under-served population. So they banded together to begin anew. And with a $675,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and a makeover worthy of a reality TV show, Chrysalis House has welcomed its first two residents, Jones and Brittaney Holmes, 21, who is due any day to deliver baby Krystle Alexis.

"I wanted to do something for myself," said Holmes, a former addict who arrived July 31 after serving time for giving a false statement to an officer.

Residency at the center, which can host up to 16 women, is voluntary. So its success largely depends on a woman's willingness to make the yearlong commitment to living there full time.

Advocates say their goal is to address a woman's range of needs, from addiction and abuse to depression and a dearth of parenting skills. Young women facing any combination of these challenges stand a much greater chance of winding up back in prison or addicted and living on the streets - and are less likely to be able to raise their children.

"Nationally, the research shows that women offenders are probably the most in need," said Baltimore District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey, who helped Jones get into the program. "Every area of their life has been affected in a negative way. So clearly, if you're able to provide the services, it would be a benefit. ... It would stop the cycling and improve upon the quality of life of the defendant and certainly of their family - and thereby the community. It's a win-win."

Without the program, women who give birth while incarcerated - Holmes worried it was a possibility - would have to give up their babies to a family member, foster care or social services. Chrysalis House allows them to raise the child on-site - and with the guidance of a nurse, two behavioral health clinicians, a social worker, day care assistants and a life skills counselor.

"I'm afraid to be outside," said Jones, who is six months' pregnant and taking methadone to quell her heroin addiction. "I'm afraid of not being sober. I'm afraid of this being a last chance."

In the day care room, bassinets are lined up, ready for the youngest arrivals. There are new rocking chairs and gliders. The women participate in classes there to learn to bond with their babies. They receive prenatal care and regular meals, and benefit from clean bathrooms and their own private dorm-size bedrooms.

Hand-painted signs of encouragement hang on each bedroom door. Holmes' says "Believe."

Participants are also schooled in personal discipline, an attempt to foster the self-esteem and confidence that has eluded them so far. Beds are made each morning. Narcotics Anonymous meetings are regularly attended. The women help in the kitchen. They meditate. They set life goals.

The center is located on the grounds of St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church, a location provided by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, a program co-creator.

Baltimore's Chrysalis House is an offshoot of three related programs: a long-term residential treatment facility in Crownsville that focuses on substance abuse issues; a halfway house in Rockville for women and children; and an outpatient program in Arnold. The newest program is open to women 18 and older who don't have outstanding warrants or concurrent or consecutive sentences that would impede admission.

When Tamar's Children was closed, its directors said that 50 of the 60 participants had graduated, with four people returning to the prison system for drug abuse and parole violations, The Sun reported at the time. But the newspaper reviewed the criminal records of women who had spoken with the news media and found that others had been rearrested for such crimes as prostitution, drug use and theft.

The program cost about $800,000 to run annually and was supported through a series of grants.

Keisha Johnson, 31, is one Tamar's Children success story. Before arriving at the program, she had served seven months at the Jessup Correctional Facility for theft of an item costing more than $500. But Johnson had been to jail before - for prostitution and possession of drugs. She was convicted of both, according to court records.

Johnson, who was about seven months' pregnant when she arrived at the center, said she was dismayed when it closed.

"I felt like they didn't really give it a chance," she said.

Now in school to study nursing, Johnson said she lives in her own house, attends therapy regularly with her children and is hoping for a pardon for the felony theft arrest - better to apply for employment once she graduates from school. The mother of five - who gave birth to Endia, now 2, while in the program - said the 11 months she lived there changed her. She grew stronger, more self-sufficient.

"I was due for parole, and I didn't want to go home yet because I knew I hadn't changed much," she said, adding that she learned to think of the center as her home.

Baltimore's Chrysalis House works with nonprofits Baltimore City Healthy Start and The Family Tree, a group dedicated to the prevention of child abuse and neglect. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene teamed with Public Safety and Corrections to launch the program.

Deborah Lawson, director of Chrysalis, was coaxed out of semi-retirement to help run the facility. This week she supervised the installation of new doors. She is also hoping to mount flood lights around the building. On her front office coffee table, magazines - Traditional Home, Vacations, an issue of Harper's Bazaar featuring Paris Hilton on the cover - are displayed neatly, just as they might in a dentist's waiting room.

As they gear up for new residents - and babies - Lawson said the staff is working to help Holmes and Jones view themselves, and the world around them, differently. When Holmes arrived, the staff slept over. After Jones moved in, the group visited the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

And the young women promise they are taking mental notes. Jones, who grew up in the Baltimore area, said the trip was her first ever to the aquarium. She is saving her ticket stub. The first memento of her journey.

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