In prison, a woman holds on to motherhood
Here in New York State, a woman who gives birth while serving time has the chance to stay with her baby in a prison nursery, for up to one year, or eighteen months if the mother is eligible for parole by then.
But during the many hours when their mothers have to attend programs like GED classes or addiction counseling, or work in the garment shop, these babies have another group of inmates who look after them. Each of these inmate caregivers has to go through a long training to have this job. And the majority of them are mothers themselves.
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Photo by Amy Lindemuth
Teourialeir Johnson remembers a moment on the day she got to Bedford Hills prison. She was twenty-three years old. Just one month earlier, she’d given birth to her son. Now he was home with someone else, and she was here.
She saw an inmate walk down the hall, pushing a baby in a stroller. “I literally broke down and cried.”
Teourialeir—everybody calls her T—is serving a seventeen and a half year sentence, on an attempted murder conviction. She wears glasses, with her hair tied back.
She’s been here for eight years now. And today, T spends most of her time in the place where that mother she saw wheeling her baby down the hall was going—it’s called the infant center. It’s where the mothers living at the nursery drop their babies off for the day, and it’s her full time job to look after them.
“To hold someone else’s baby and be looking after somebody else’s baby but not be able to hold yours gets tough too,” she says.
T and the other caregivers play with the babies, change their diapers, put them down for naps. Toys litter the carpet, mobiles hang from the ceiling—it really looks and feels like a daycare center.
T says stepping in here almost feels like stepping out of the prison. But she also says that pain she felt eight years ago, has never gone away.
“But I think the most important part of it is trying to stay connected to it, not necessarily isolating the pain or running from the pain, but trying to find a way to use it? Leaving myself open to learning how to be a mother again even in such a restricted position was how I was able to channel the pain and I still do to this day.”
On top of being a caregiver for the babies, she teaches prenatal classes to pregnant inmates. Some of those women are the ones who will go live the nursery, and others are the ones who’ll find out that they won’t be able to keep their babies with them.
She says the classes she teaches help her and the other woman keep in touch with their identities as mothers, and learn how to be better mothers. Most of the women serving time at Bedford are mothers. And all but the twelve currently living in the nursery, live here without their kids every day.
T also has a daughter, who was four when she went to prison.
“And it’s very hard when your kids come up on a visit and they see a mother come out through the visiting area with a stroller and a baby and they say ‘if that baby can stay here, why can’t I stay here?’ Or when my daughter came out and she’s just thinking, ‘Well, I could just stay here forever!’ and I’m like noooo you can’t, this is not what it looks like!”
Her son, who was born just before she came here, is now eight. “To me around eight or nine they start to go through this phase of “when are you comin home again?” And that’s where he’s at, he’s more, ‘I want you to come home now?” Things are happening at school…’ so it’s been kinda tough with him.”
Some of the mothers inside Bedford take parenting classes T teaches. She says part of her job is to help women believe that having a strong relationship with their children is still possible from behind bars. It’s something she once had trouble believing, too:
“My daughter was older enough to remember ‘Mommy Mommy Mommy’ and she had memories and things to hang on to over the years. But my son was only a baby. So I would think that the relationship would be a bit strained and wouldn’t have this emotional attachment, but kids do. And once he was able to put my face to his thoughts in his mind of who mommy is, and what mommy should be, it’s just for him, ‘This is my mom, when is she coming out, this person will never cease to exist in my world.’”
T’s looking a release date in 2019. She says she’s overwhelmed when she thinks about all the things she’ll have to navigate when she gets out—finding a job, finishing her degree, getting a place to live. But when it comes to the bond she has with her kids, she says that’s no longer a question.