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Playtime on Hard Time : A New Policy for Mothers in Prison May Help Tear Down Imposing Barriers to Raising a Child

August 03, 1989|LINDA MEARS

If you asked Jenny Martinez, "Have you hugged your kid today?" she'd laugh you right out of the room. Even though she's the mother of three, with another on the way, the room is a cell at the Ventura County Honor Farm in Ojai, where the bumper-sticker question is just an ironic joke.

Hugging their kids is not something most women in jail are allowed to do. Traditionally, the policy has been "look but don't touch," and it is enforced in most facilities throughout the state by a physical separation: screens, glass or fencing. At Ojai, one visiting room is equipped with Plexiglas and another with a wood partition, depending on the prisoner's potential for violence.

Not only will Martinez tell you that she has not hugged her children today or yesterday or last month, she will tell you that under the circumstances, she does not want to see them, even for the 30-minute visitations allowed once every two weeks. "The visits aren't good," she said. "If I can't touch them and hold them, I'd rather not see them at all."

Pauline Rivas, a former cellmate who was released in late July, seconds that emotion. A mother of three children ranging in age from nine months to four years, the 21-year-old Rivas said: "It's very hard. What do you say to little ones that they'll understand? They don't understand why you can't hold them. It's just too hard."

State and local corrections officials hope a recently approved program will ease such concerns and help break the cycle of addiction and crime that lands the women in jail to begin with. The program--called Teaching and Loving Kids (TALK)--is designed to help incarcerated mothers more constructively relate to their children. It tears down the partitions between mothers and children, expands visiting time to 90 minutes and offers a supervised array of activities more reminiscent of playtime than of hard time.

At the handful of other California jails and prisons using the TALK program, activity areas are set up with a variety of blocks, easels, drawing and chalkboards, clay, dolls, beads for stringing and snapping and play areas for dress-up and tea parties.

Mothers are instructed not just to watch, but to play, not to ask value-judgment questions ("Are you being good? Are you doing well in school?") and, of course, to hug.

Such a session concludes with a group game called "parachute," in which the children grab the edges of a large circle of fabric, lift it in the air while their mothers run underneath, and then bring it down, covering the inmates. Then the situation reverses: The mothers do the lifting while the children lie giggling under the big parachute.

Liked by Inmates

TALK was popular with inmates when it was first offered as a pilot program in 1987 at the Mira Loma women's facility in Los Angeles County. Ventura County officials also have high hopes for it. They are waiting for the arrival of specially equipped trailers in October to start it.

"I can tell you right now, our inmate mothers will love it," said Sgt. Kelli McIlvain, a supervisor at the Ojai facility, where perhaps 80% of the 190 female inmates are mothers. "It could make a big difference."

State Department of Corrections spokesman Mike Van Winkle said 85 of 105 inmates who participated in the department's prison-mother-infant program in 1987 were successful--success being defined as good behavior with no rule violations.

"We can't yet look at a success rate after they have been paroled. It's too soon and the sample size is very small. But we expect success because we choose people for the program who can benefit most and who can meet the criteria," Van Winkle said. "We have a waiting list of prisoner-mothers waiting to get into this program. It helps keep them on the straight and narrow. Is there a bigger incentive for a mother than her children?"

To many inmates, the answer is not so obvious.

"It's a vicious circle," said the diminutive and soft-spoken Rivas, who was jailed for heroin use. "That drug comes first and your priority is taking care of yourself. It's very selfish."

Martinez, whose fourth child is due in September, said matter-of-factly: "Let's be realistic--our kids do not come first. We do not do what we're supposed to do. I don't play the part with the crying stuff and how bad I feel for my kids because I know I'll be right back."

The children of Martinez, who also was jailed for drug violations, and Rivas are being cared for by family members who have been awarded temporary custody by the county's Public Social Services Agency. But having their children removed permanently is always a possibility. "If you don't have family support, you're a goner," said one inmate.

While inmate mothers retain the right to arrange for their children's care, courts can place the children into permanent foster care if the mothers are ruled unfit. And even the most skeptical inmates admit that if anything can scare them straight, it is the prospect of losing their children.

Reason for Living

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