- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

LUSK, Wyo. (AP) - One day.

That’s how long April Moore-Williams will have with her newborn daughter before returning to prison.

Six hours.

That’s how long her daughter will be alone in a hospital in Torrington before she’s picked up by Moore-Williams’ older sister.

Five months.

That’s how long Moore-Williams will have left in prison after she gives birth.

“Thinking about those five months, it just tears me up,” Moore-Williams said.

Wyoming lawmakers set aside $1 million three years ago to prevent imprisoned mothers like Moore-Williams from being separated from their newborns. A building has been renovated. Equipment has been donated. But due to a staffing shortage, the center has yet to open.

Tears pooled in the corners of Moore-Williams’ eyes. She perched herself on a plastic chair in the visiting room at Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk, where’s she’s been imprisoned since Feb. 9. Her oversized orange jumpsuit barely revealed her swollen stomach. Her due date is June 25.

Moore-Willliams, 25, was arrested in October after being caught with methamphetamine in Rock Springs. She didn’t know she was pregnant when she was taken to jail. A month later she took a pregnancy test, and in January an ultrasound revealed she was having a girl: Paislee Jean. A judge sent Moore-Williams to Lusk in the hopes she’d be able to raise her daughter there.

When it finally opens, the woman and child program at the women’s prison will allow inmates who give birth while incarcerated to live with their babies for up to 18 months in a renovated building on the center’s campus.

“It’s just the bonding really. Just being around your children,” Moore-Williams said. “When you make bad choices and you get locked up, your children suffer the most.”

Although the building for the nursery has been renovated, Moore-Williams’ daughter will live with her sister, Senica, until her release in November. Consistent with a national shortage of correctional officers, the Women’s Center has not been able to staff the nursery.

There are currently about 200 vacant positions within the Wyoming Department of Corrections - 19 at the Women’s Center.

“With increased job opportunities and a low unemployment rate across the country, we’re not getting as many applicants from states we’ve heavily recruited from in the past, such as California and Michigan,” said DOC spokesman Mark Horan. “We lose staff to higher paying jobs in the private sector or to other law enforcement agencies.”

An empty playground made of primary colors stands in front of the renovated nursery, which is surrounded by a tall metal fence. Inside the nursery are 11 rooms with empty cribs and unmade double beds on simple black frames. There are empty changing tables, an empty bathtub, an empty classroom, an empty kitchen.

A closet offers signs of life: colorful high chairs, more cribs and stacks of diapers. Several green tubs hold baby-size knitted hats and scarves in pink and blue, Onesies and small winter jackets. Everything was donated by churches across the state.

When opened, the nursery will be staffed by correctional officers at all times. But for now, the prison doesn’t have officers to spare. Since Lusk is a small, rural community, it holds a limited applicant pool, causing DOC to recruit applicants from outside the community, Horan said. However, a lack of affordable housing makes it difficult for people to relocate, particularly those with family.

“(We’re) working aggressively to recruit qualified staff and fill vacant positions at all our facilities, and at the Women’s Center in particular,” Horan said.

According to the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, there is no national policy for what should happen to children born to mothers who are locked up.

The purpose of the prison nursery is to allow mothers and their infants to bond immediately after birth, rather than waiting until a woman’s release from prison, said Virginia Pullen, the warden at the Women’s Center. A similar program at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, Nebraska, which Wyoming modeled its program after, has been shown to decrease the recidivism rate among incarcerated mothers, according to a 2009 report by the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice.

Five years before Nebraska opened its nursery, the recidivism rate was 33.3 percent for women who gave birth in custody and were immediately separated from their child. The rate for women who went through the nursery program was 9 percent after the program operated for five years.

“Those inmates have gone on to maintain family life and not come back,” Pullen said.

The nursery is meant to teach women how to be mothers. The prison will provide parenting classes for inmates living in the nursery and correctional officers will oversee any high-risk activities, such as women giving medication to their children.

Three meals a day will be sent from the prison’s kitchen. There is a small kitchen in the nursery, though, for women to do cooking projects.

Mothers will still be required to take classes within the general population and must hire a babysitter to watch their children while they’re gone, Pullen said. Other inmates will serve as babysitters and will be vetted by officers and trained before watching kids.

Pullen hopes Wyoming’s prison nursery will diminish the feelings of abandonment that children of incarcerated parents often experience. A lack of early attachment between a mother and her child has been shown to increase the risk that the child will engage in criminal activity as they age, Pullen said. The warden has seen three generations of women in the prison at one time.

“I think it can be a real benefit to the children, to the mothers, to the family structure,” she said. “The only way we’re going to break this cycle is to start when they’re little.”

While most people within the state have been very supportive of the nursery, Pullen said she has heard from people who disagree with it. But, she said, those people don’t understand the benefits a prison nursery can offer.

“They just don’t think a baby should be in a prison, that it’s not a good environment for that,” Pullen said. “But that’s based upon feelings and emotions. It’s not based upon facts.”

Moore-Williams is documenting her pregnancy in a journal. She writes every time her daughter moves and kicks. After Paislee is born, Moore-Williams said she’s going to write every time she misses her. She frets over all the firsts she’ll miss: her daughter’s first smile, first giggle, the first time she holds her head up and her first Halloween.

“And getting up at night with her,” Moore-Williams said. “I know that moms really dread that, but I’m really excited about that piece, to have that time with my daughter.”

Moore-Williams’ sister will bring her daughter to visitation at the prison every other week. She made her sister promise she’d take pictures and videos of everything. She doesn’t want to miss being a mother.

Kendra Horn might not have a choice. Horn, who is six months pregnant, has been in the Women’s Center since January. Incarcerated for violating her probation on a shoplifting charge, her family doesn’t speak to her anymore. She’s afraid her daughter, Asiana Lynn Leigh, will have nowhere to go but foster care.

Horn has more than two years until she’s eligible for parole. By then, she’s afraid her daughter will have been adopted by a family. If the nursery were open, she’d have a better chance of keeping custody of her daughter.

“It would lift a burden off my shoulder knowing that I could keep her,” Horn said. “If I lose her, I can’t honestly say that you won’t see me back in here because this will destroy me.”

Horn kisses the ultrasound picture of Asiana every morning when she wakes and every night before she goes to bed. She tells her she already loves her.

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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