The baby carrier sits on the floor encircled by a flock of women. The one-week-old absentmindedly sleeps. Her olive skin and light brown peach-fuzz hair complete the classic baby girl picture. The women all yearn to hold her; every wrinkle of the nose and pucker of the lips sends the assemblage into a round of girlish giggles. Her mother stands amongst the crowd answering all the excited questions in a single stringed response. “Yes, only one week old, Gabriella, thanks, no those are her father’s ears! Six pounds four ounces, perfect size I know, thank you… ” The scene is typical of any new addition; however, for Gabriella the welcome home party is far from ordinary.
“I keep her for three months, which is an absolute blessing, but then I have to give her up,” she tells Vice President of Community Solutions, Terri Willams.
Michelle isn’t surrounded by family, old friends or neighbors. Her immediate family, including her other four-year-old daughter, are over eight hours away in Baltimore, Maryland. She is in a halfway house in Hartford, Connecticut and up until a few days before she gave birth, she and the unborn baby lived incarcerated.
“I was, I guess, in a time of debt and needed money pretty bad. So a friend of mine told me that somebody would pay me pretty good money to traffic drugs. So that’s what I did, and I got caught by the border patrol.”
Struggling with the financial responsibility of raising her four-year-old daughter on her own, Michelle made the fateful decision to cross the Mexican/U.S. border in possession. She was working and occasionally receiving child support from her ex-husband but was still struggling to keep the family financially afloat. “My mother said, ‘Why didn’t you just come to me for help?’ and I should have. I kick myself in the butt everyday for not setting my pride aside.” She later reveals that she and her mother have struggled with an estranged relationship throughout most of Michelle’s life. Sentenced to 41 months in a federal prison in West Virginia, she entered into her federal prison sentence a month into her second trimester.
The Federal Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together (MINT) program is a way for pregnant women to spend a few essential months with their new babies. Only available in a few states, eligible women are three months away from their birth date and have less than five more years to serve on their sentence. They are transferred to a community release program or halfway house, often far away from family, to give birth and raise their child for the first three months before returning to prison. Connecticut is one of seven MINT Programs in the country.
Before this program was created, expectant mothers had a harsher reality to face. Given only a few days in the hospital, they would be immediately separated from their infants, who were placed either with family or foster care, and sent straight back to prison.
When asked to compare her first pregnancy with her current Michelle answers vaguely. “It was definitely easier with my four-year-old because I wasn’t hiking hills everyday in the mountains and I wasn’t working. I was working up until I came here. It was a lot harder because they don’t look at you any different when you’re pregnant because you’re not disabled so you still have to work.” She craved ice cream. Nine months pregnant, Michelle made the long drive from West Virginia to Connecticut, in the back of inmate transport van. Three short days later, in the middle of a heat wave, she became the proud mother of a baby girl.
It’s sort of the mass causality nature…that calls us to action in a way that other things may not.