For moms in prison, every minute with children counts

"Don't forget to listen, and BRUSH YOUR TEETH!''

Most sons hear those words from their mothers on the way out the door to a slumber party, headed out for a camping trip, on a trip to Grandma's house. Jonny hears them through a wrought iron fence.

He walks between the brick wall topped with iron bars and a green chain-link fence - it's unclimbable, they say. His mother, Michelle Maley, dressed in purple, follows along on the inside of the brick wall. She waves, and Jonny blows her a kiss.

He gets into his grandmother's car as his mother turns from the fence. She walks back toward her home and takes one last look. The car is pulling away from the curb, and Jonny is turning around in his seat, waving.

''It's just so hard, everytime,'' Maley says as tears course down her cheeks.

Jonny is one of some 200 children whose mothers are incarcerated at Montana's Women's Correctional Center.

The prison is home to about 70 women, although the population fluctuates. Of the 73 women incarcerated on the weekend of Nov. 14-16, only five were childless. Two were pregnant and awaiting ''in-prison'' births. The women had an average of three children each.

''There are lots of children whose lives are being affected by their (mothers') incarceration,'' says Marge Eliason, a child development specialist and volunteer at the prison.

Some of the mothers, says Steve Griffin, activities coordinator at the facility, won't tell prison officials about their children. There's a fear that prison administrators will report the children's whereabouts to the state's Department of Family Services, and they'll never see them again.

Fact is, their children are at risk themselves for delinquency and incarceration. According to the Child Welfare League of America, 10 percent of children with imprisoned parents will be incarcerated themselves, either as children or as adults.

Thanks to the work of several volunteers at Montana's women's prison, this state's female inmates are trying to get a better handle on their lives and the lives of their children, some against nearly insurmountable odds.

Volunteer Eliason, who heads the prison's parenting program, says the purpose of her program is prevention.

''Prevention of those children becoming victims and also being in prison one day,'' Eliason explains. ''The more contact (child and mother) have … the better chance we have of that child not being in prison.''

Amanda Zepeda, of Billings, is mother to three children. Two of them, her 6-year-old son, Alan, and 5-year-old daughter, Alex, live with Zepeda's mother in Missouri. Her 14-month-old son, Marcus, lives in foster care in Billings.

Marcus visits with his mother once a week for an hour, but Zepeda admits he probably doesn't even know who she is.

''He just knows that he comes to see someone,'' she says.

At 25, this is Zepeda's second time in prison. ''The first time I didn't learn anything,'' she says. ''I didn't do any of the programming.''

But after breaking her parole, returning to lockup and losing Marcus to foster care, Zepeda says she's decided to do it right this time.

She's taken the 10-week parenting course, she's been to ''corrective thinking programs,'' Moral Recognition Therapy, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous - the works.

''Everything I can do, I'm doing,'' she says. In fact, Zepeda could be out on parole right now, she says, but she wants to wait until she's finished all the programming she can before she returns to the streets.

''I don't want to come back,'' she says.

Zepeda talks to her older children on the phone, and she's always been open with them about where she is and why she's there. Her son knows that she was originally arrested in South Dakota for assault and possession of drugs. Zepeda says he often admonishes his mother for her actions.

'' 'If you would have walked away, Mom,' he says. He tells me, 'Here's where you went wrong,' when I couldn't see it at the time,'' she says.

When she finally does leave the Billings facility, she says she'll reunite her children and move to Missouri to be close to her family.

''If I remember what I learned in here, I can turn it around and make something good of it,'' she says.

Michelle Maley counts herself a lucky mother, because her son lives with Michelle's mother in Billings. They visit frequently in the confines of prison rules.

She has called the women's prison home since April 1996 after her conviction on forgery charges, and she's got another six months guaranteed behind the wrought iron bars.

That's a long time in the life of 7-year-old Jonny.

Jonny says he comes to visit his mom every Saturday and Sunday. Once a month his grandmother drops him off outside the green chain-link fence, where he meets several other children for ''Kids' Day'' at the facility - three hours of just mom and kids, playing and singing and being together.

Kids' Day is a time for moms to demonstrate to kids that things are changing, for kids to tell moms about what's happening at school, for moms and kids to rebuild a bond that was probably at the breaking point before mom came to prison.

Jonny and Michelle talk about his last spelling test. Grandma said he knew all the words backward and forward, but he missed a few.

The last time Billie Remillard, 23, saw her son was Sept. 27, 1996. He was 2 years old. The last time she spoke to him was February. By then, he was 3.

Next month, right before Christmas, Austin will turn 4. Billie doesn't even know where to send a card.

''I'm going to make all the girls here sing 'Happy Birthday,' to him,'' Remillard says with a teary grin. ''I talk about him all the time. My pictures don't leave my pocket.''

Austin lives with his father. The last address Remillard had was in Wyoming.

''I write him every week,'' she says. ''It does me no good, but I keep trying.''

Remillard ran afoul of the law in Great Falls when Austin was 2 years old - not long after the boy's father came back into his life and moved him to Wyoming. While she was held in county jail, Remillard says, she had no way to keep in touch with Austin.

The last time she talked to him, Austin spoke of his stepmother as his mother, and it was clear to Remillard that Austin's heard nothing good about his real mother.

''I have a lot of worries,'' she says. ''Like, is my son going to remember me?''

Remillard refuses to give up her parental rights. As long as she remains Austin's mother legally, she's entitled to know who his caregiver is, to have access to his medical and school records, to contest his leaving the state of Wyoming, and to know his father's police record. But behind bars and without much money, it's difficult to fight for those rights.

Although she says she's more emotionally controlled than when she first entered the prison in March, she's still wracked by guilt about her son. The first few times she went to parenting classes, she couldn't stay in the room when the others talked about their children.

''I just couldn't handle it,'' she says.

Remillard and the other mothers all say they feel tremendous guilt about what they did to their children. Maybe it wasn't physical abuse, but it was just as bad.

''I can't change what I did,'' Remillard says. ''I know that I never abused my child. I never neglected my child.

''But I just can't put the guilt away. That's going to be there for the rest of my life. My son's going to have emotional scars from that. Right now all I do is I tell him I'm sorry.

''He might be old enough to understand.''

At 37, Beverly New is one of the older inmates in the prison, and her children are older than the average as well.

New's 18-year-old daughter lives in Missoula with New's husband. Her 14-year-old son just recently moved to Colorado to live with his father.

Her daughter dropped out of school about two years ago, and her son is facing ''a couple drug charges,'' she said. And New does take some of the blame for her children's problems.

''I think it (New's incarceration) had a big impact on him as far as school,'' New says.

''I tell him, 'Be careful,' " she says. ''He's a pretty bright child. But I think he learned the behavior from me.''

New is serving time for drug charges, and she says drugs have been a big part of her life for a long time.

''I tell (my kids) that it's a dead-end road,'' she says. ''It's hard to get out of the addiction.''

Her time at the women's prison has given her hope. New's also taken advantage of the programming and learned what she says is the most important lesson for going straight: ''You have to want to want to change,'' she says. She now understands that the birth of a thought in her brain doesn't mean she has to act on it. ''I will be able to do things different,'' she says.

New tells her daughter that prison has been a positive experience. ''She was old enough to see the drug use,'' New explains. ''Now she can tell there's been a change - just over the phone, talking.''

New's also involved in the parenting classes at the prison, and while her children are much older than those of most of the women taking the classes, she says she's learning how to keep in contact with her children and how to keep communication open with them.

''I like to play football with her,'' Jonny tells a reporter.

That's something he wouldn't be allowed to do during regular visiting hours. But Kids' Day affords Michelle and her son more freedom to be mother and child.

''We play a mean game of football,'' Michelle Maley says.

Jonny, Michelle, and another boy, JeRon, who's visiting his mother on Kids' Day, head outside for a game of catch. Jonny's got quite the arm, and the group's laughter bounces off the brick walls and the snow-covered lawn.

Close your eyes and it could be the neighbor's backyard. Open them and catch a glimpse of the security cameras positioned on the roof.

When Terri's son is born, his father won't be allowed to be at the birth. Her mother won't be notified that her daughter is in labor. Terri's support will be a correctional officer and Linda Cladis, a parenting volunteer at the prison.

Terri, who doesn't want her last name used, was seven-and-a-half months pregnant when she was sentenced to prison. This is her first child: She and the baby's father tried to get a court order to have him allowed in the birthing room, to no avail.

Prison policy says that once an incarcerated mother goes into labor, she's handcuffed, taken to the hospital, has her baby, and her family isn't notified until she's safely back behind the walls of the prison. If a baby is going straight to foster care, the inmate can request that the foster mother be present at the birth.

Now that volunteers such as Eliason and Cladis are around, it's a little better, Cladis says. In fact, Cladis will be with Terri when she has her baby. Last summer, Cladis sat with another inmate through labor and delivery, and it was ''very respectful,'' she says.

Terri, who's in prison on bad check charges, says when her baby is old enough, she won't hide the story of his birth from him.

''I actually have a letter,'' she says through tears. ''I have a baby book. That's what he'll get. You can't hide something like that.

''At least he'll know he was wanted.''

In prison, the women seem to agree, a child is a reason to get straight and get out, a reason to do the right thing, maybe for the first time.

''It's a new hope,'' Cladis says.

The mothers at the Women's Correctional Facility in Billings who want to talk about children, hopes and fears don't claim that they are innocent or that they don't deserve their prison sentences. The vast majority are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and others, like Terri, have other addictions.

''Everybody here has committed a crime,'' Terri says. ''My drug of choice was kind of money. That doesn't mean I love my child any less.''

They realize that many people would advocate depriving them of all contact with their children. Each one of them knows that by committing crimes, they've also victimized their children.

Ourgenny Ady, whose 5-year-old son JeRon lives with his grandmother in Billings, says JeRon's father is in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge - leaving the boy without either parent. For the year Ady spent in county jail, she had no opportunity to see JeRon.

''It's been really challenging to bond with him again,'' Ady says.

''A lot of people forget about our kids,'' she says. ''We need to see them, and they need to see us. They're one of the biggest victims of all our crimes.''

The state Department of Family Services has a new rule worrying many incarcerated mothers. The department has 12 months in which to place a child in foster care with a permanent family. That means, if a mother who goes to prison is forced to give her child to DFS and her sentence is longer than one year, she has virtually no chance of keeping her parental rights.

''You are allowing a very small section of society to play God with a child's life,'' Terri says. ''And who decides what a good parent is?

''Because I'm here doesn't mean I'm a bad person. It doesn't mean I'm a bad mother. No matter what kind of person you are, how could you lose that tie?''

''Maybe we don't deserve to see our children,'' Beverly New says. ''But our children deserve to see their parents. They need to see their mom is OK, that's she's being taken care of so that she can come home and be mom again.''

It is a slow Kids' Day, so Jonny and Michelle only have JeRon and Ourgenny to play with.

The boys and their moms make Thanksgiving cookies, paint, play games, toss the football, eat candy. JeRon leaves early with a toothache, leaving Michelle and Jonny with the playroom to themselves.

''I do wonder if they have Candyland,'' Jonny asks Michelle with a sidelong glance. Alas, no Candyland game, but the two work on a painting project together.

Michelle is trying to get a kiss or a hug out of Jonny, but even a 7-year-old boy who doesn't see his mother everyday is reticent about displaying affection in front of visitors.

Finally, the two retreat to a separate, quiet room where Michelle reads to Jonny until he's nearly fallen asleep. With hot red cheeks and a child's moist, tired eyes he comes back to the playroom and gets ready for the long walk to meet Grandma.

What does Jonny like best about the alone time he spends with his mom once a month?

''Probably playing outside,'' he says.

Grandma pulls her car to the outside fence, and Jonny and Michelle are escorted to the interior gate. Michelle can only walk as far as the brick fence, and it's there that Jonny lets his little-boy inhibitions go and allows a hug.

She follows his walk between the two fences, as Jonny agrees - at least in principle - to brush his teeth.

And as he comes to the final corner, he blows his mother a kiss.

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