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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 21 February 2013

Wilsonville, Ore.  10:40 a.m.

Alisha with her childrenAlisha (pictured with Mark, 7, and Antawan, 5) 
was an alcoholic and a struggling single parent when she committed a robbery. She passed her GED in prison and has taken some basic computer classes. She is due to be released in Fall 2013

It's a cool fall morning and some women and children are playing outdoors. The sky is clouded over, but their faces are sunny with joy.  Mothers holding babies; what could be more ordinary? But for these mothers, in this place, there's nothing ordinary about it.

Welcome to Coffee Creek women's prison, and to the Family Preservation Project, a one-of-kind program working with women in prison and their families. 

Studies show children of incarcerated parents are are at higher risk of anti-social behavior when they grow up.

"Our overarching goal is to break the cycle, to have them change the pattern, so their children won't end up repeating it," said Jessica Katz, a clinical social worker and founder of the program.  "We give them tools to change so that they don't repeat the pattern. And our outcomes are more solid than most programs."

The program works with just 10-12 women at a time. It's one of three programs in Coffee Creek that allow children to spend time with their mothers. The other two programs are Early Head Start and Scouts behind Bars.

"Collectively we are able to serve about 10 percent of the families," Katz says.


Melissa was still in her teens when she committed a crime.
"I was addicted to meth, and I made a bad decision," she says. "I participated in a robbery."  That was in 2005. Fearful of the 6-year sentence mandated under Oregon's Measure 11 law, Melissa ran. The first thing she did was get clean.  Then a year later, she married, and had her son Vinny. When she was caught, in 2011, she was a young mom with five years of sobriety. Today, she's a prisoner, with a release date sometime in 2015.

10:55: It's a merry little group that troops across the empty prison yard and into the program building to get ready for lunch. The yard and its encircling buildings are guarded by fences and security cameras.

Simply to enter Coffee Creek's minimum security prison, visitors must use an intercom, wait for a guard to open two locked doors and pass through a metal detector. You must leave all your belongings in a locker in the outer hallway.  Outsiders must be escorted by prison staff at all times.

But the Family Preservation Project's space is informal, and even cozy. With books, toys and craft materials, it's not unlike a room in a daycare center. Twice a month children arrive at 9 a.m., starting off their time with their mothers by working on an art activity.

"When they get to come in here and play with the other kids, it's really healthy for them," says Melissa one of the inmate moms. "People judge it as, 'This is such a horrible place.' We make it bad because of the stigma. But they are not uncomfortable here. They are with their moms."

The program doesn't just bring moms and kids together. On the outside it supports caregivers, helps with transportation, and helps children attend classes and activities. Family meetings keep everyone on the same page. Inside, it teaches moms new parenting skills and coaches them on how to draw their children into conversation.

"We're teaching them that people can be here and get better," Katz says. "People can be here and build healthy relationships."


Meryl first went to prison in 1997 as a teen with a 17-year sentence. She spent eight and a half years at Hillcrest before being conditionally released. At first, Meryl did well. She had a daughter, Taisia, now 5. "For the first four years of my daughter's life I was there, every day," Meryl says. But when Taisia was seven months old her father left. Meryl started using drugs and became addicted to heroin and oxycontin.  About 10 months later, her probation was revoked and she was sent to Coffee Creek to serve out the rest of her original sentence.  

11:05 a.m. Lunchtime. Children sit with their mothers at tables, eating sandwiches, chips and apples. Later a plate of birthday cupcakes arrives. It's always someone's birthday. Today, there are two birthday kids. Everyone sings Happy Birthday and eats cake, which leaves the youngest kids with frosting all over their little hands and faces.

Competition to get into this program is fierce. Only minimum security inmates are considered.  About three out of every four women inmates are mothers, 60 percent of them with children under age 18.  But 40 percent of those children have no contact at all with their mothers – not even a phone call. Many mothers don't even know where their children are living, says Alisha, whose prison job is in the family resource center.

'Hundreds of women don't know where their kids are.  I've had one lady who hasn't seen her daughter for three years, and she is seven.  It's really hard to hear that especially if you don't know anything about your kid."

11:30 It's quiet reading time. Mark and Antawan sit on either side of Alisha, looking at the pictures while she reads a story.  Meryl and Shari read to Taisia and Leonsea in a den they've made under a table. Everyone is engrossed and the chatter drops to a hum.

Most inmate moms can't do anything to help their children with school. These moms speak to their children's teachers, and they learn how to help them with reading and school work. The result?

RMC Research Corp., which has evaluated the Family Preservation project since 2005, found benefits for the children.

Pre-schoolers in the program for 6 months or more, "demonstrated strong alphabet recognition skills, an indicator of kindergarten readiness."  The majority of older children had at least 90 percent school attendance rates. And although half of the children started out below grade level with reading, they made progress in the program. Researchers also noted improved behavior, confidence and social skills.

"The Family Preservation Program has been a huge part of my life, and it's helped me rebuild relationships that I'd damaged from bad choices and drugs," says Nicole. "I'm really grateful.

"I try to work on things so we can communicate. We have education stuff in the cupboards.  I work on sight words and she brings in her homework.  It makes me feel I'm included in her life I'm really grateful for that."


Nicole's daughter Victoria was just 10 months old when she arrived at Coffee Creek, on drug-related charges.  She was distressed to discover that she also was pregnant. "I was crying," she says. "Soon after my son was born I gave him up for adoption to a wonderful  family that actually are more supportive than my own family."  Nicole's father would bring Victoria to visit every weekend until he became ill with cancer and died. Losing her father also meant losing her visits with Victoria. Nicole went through drug treatment at Turning Point, and five months later she was released. Struggling with grief for her father and over losing custody of her children, Nicole relapsed and started dealing drugs. After she was found in possession of a gun – her boyfriend asked her to "hold" it for him, she was rearrested and sentenced to 51 months. That was in October 2010.

11:45 Clean-up time. The routine is so ingrained that it takes no time at all to clean and tidy the room. That frees up the moms for some last minute roughhousing in a small adjoining room that's completely empty. Nicole hardly looks strong enough to pick up Victoria, but she does, swinging her around and around till they are both out of breath and giggling. Leonsea and Taisia, too big for their moms to lift now, dance around together.

Slowly the women and children gather, sitting on the floor to share their few last minutes together.  Antawan and Mark flop on Alisha as if their weight can anchor her to them. Ashley has her hand on Sophia's hair.  Malachi and Michael rest on Trina's lap. Michael's eyes close but not for long.  Everyone knows what comes next.


11:55 Goodbye song.  The goodbye song tells the children that although it's time to go now, they will be back before too long.  And the singing is surprisingly cheerful. Routines like this help ease the pain of leaving mom behind. They line up at the door and make their way back through the yard, back through the locked door, past the guard and the metal detector, back to their daily lives on the outside.


Noon: The mothers come back to the family room. Usually they go over the events of the day, talk about what they did right, and what they could have done better. Today sitting around a table, they tell their stories one after another.  They talk about their crimes, which range from driving drunk to theft, robbery and a weapons charge. They talk about the classes they are taking and the work skills they hope to have.  Some are nearing their release date, and they are getting help to clean up their finances, their driving records and any outstanding warrants. Project staff want to remove any barriers to success before they leave.  

Ashley, 26, is in Coffee Creek serving a 60-month sentence. She was arrested for driving drunk after an accident which left her passenger injured. At the time she was a full-time student and mother.  "No-one expected this to happen," she says. "I had been doing good and going to school." Ashley's daughter was taken into DHS custody.   "I'm very thankful that now they are on board with the program," she says. "I'm taking all the classes I can, hopefully for my future being in her life as a parent. The Family Preservation Project has just changed everything. Sophia loves coming to visit. And then there are the little things, like she knows I signed her up for a dance class. So that is awesome." Ashley hopes to eventually finish college and become a counselor for troubled youth.

Shay, (not her real name) who doesn't want to be identified because her family is well known in Portland, is almost giddy when she talks about her release date.  "I grew up in prison and institutions," she says. "At 25-26, when I was leaving, I didn't know anything else. This is my third time in jail."

This program has helped her change her life, she says.

It made her look at herself closely, and she realized that even the way she stood was a mask to make her look tough. Laughing, she admits she now copies the "ladylike" postures of the program staff.

She stands up and shows us how she used to stand and walk. She looks tough. Then, in a startling turnabout, she brings her feet together in a neat pose, and clasps her hands together demurely. Everyone laughs, but she's serious.

"I want to learn how to be a healthy mom," she says. "My 6-year-old is having a hard time, so I learned how to understand him and not just spank him …I can go out now and I can show my family how I can talk to my kids without having to spank them.  I've learned how not to be mentally and physically abusive –because that's what my family does.

"Without this program I know I would never have made it. I came here so young."


Jessica Katz (L) and Erin Webb, both experienced social workers, run the Family Preservation Project. They are pictured here with Mark.

Postscript: Women in Oregon have been going to prison in increasing numbers, and staying there longer thanks to "tough on crime" laws, such as Oregon's Measure 57, which increased penalties for drugs, property and DUII offenses.

"Women are the fastest growing criminal justice population, and it's not because they are becoming more violent," says Emily Salisbury, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University.

"This is a population that often has struggled significantly with abuse and victimization. You can almost pretty much assume that every woman in that prison has experienced some kind of victimization, whether it is physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Women don't enter prison for the same reasons as men. Their pathways to offending are different."

About 15,000 children in Oregon have a parent in prison. Those children are at increased risk of mental health and behavior problems, as well as school dropout, and future criminal behavior. Factsheet on parents in prison (pdf)

But the good news is that many of these risks can be reduced through programs that improve parenting skills and help them to be successful outside prison. 

Shari has been in prison for the last two years on theft charges. She is due for release in April 2013. Her oldest daughter, now 20, has been caring for Leonsea, 8, since Shari was incarcerated.
 "This program really allows me to still somewhat co-operate and be a parent and help my daughter out with resources she needs," Shari says. "Even though she's 20 and taking care of her sister, she still needs me." Shari is getting ready for release by applying for housing and writing for scholarship money so she can finish school.  "More than anything I want to build positive support around myself, and these people here are a good place to start," she says.  "We are all like family."

The Family Preservation Project is one example of an evidence-based program that works long-term to strengthen families and support them as they leave prison.

Almost all the women who enter the program complete it. And those who complete the program have been successful outside prison.

 "I think we've lost two women," says Katz. "They broke some rules and were sent to medium security."

RMC's latest report, published in August 2012, says the Family Preservation Project, "consistently provides high-quality services based on best practices research."
Urban Institute Report on the needs of children with incarcerated parents (pdf)

See all 50 photos in larger sizes on The Skanner News Facebook page or on Flickr

(CORRECTION: This story originally cited and linked to a statistic from Oregon Department of Corrections that was not correct. The Department of Corrections is changing their website to reflect this.)

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