November 19, 2019

Mothers behind bars

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Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

Stephanie Baker in her cell in the Springer Correctional Center in Springer. Stephanie spent nearly three years at the facility before her release in October.

For almost three years, Stephanie Baker’s young sons knew her as a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit. They could only visit her at Springer Correctional Center, passing through concrete walls and tall barbed fences, once every few months. It was difficult for their maternal great-grandparents, with whom they lived in Roswell, to make the five-hour drive to the prison. 

In nightly phone calls, the boys asked their mother when she was coming home. Her release had been delayed so many times in 2019 that she no longer discussed possible dates with them for fear of getting their hopes up.  So when she opened their front door in the early evening of Sept. 26, the sight of her was almost too much for them to bear. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” the youngest yelled, jumping into her arms. The oldest began to cry.

By Baker’s own admission, she had never been a good mother. Before she went to prison in 2016, her priority was meth – scoring it, selling it, smoking it. She would leave the two older boys — then 8 and 6 years old — in the care of her grandparents, both in their late 60s. Often, she would drop off the youngest, who was still a baby, and disappear for days at a time. When she was arrested, it was for using a stolen credit card that someone had given her as payment for meth.

“I was a very bad person,” she said. “Honestly, I just didn’t care about anyone or anything. If I was hurting you or screwing you over, it didn’t matter to me.” 

Now she must prove — to her boys, to her grandparents, to herself — that she’s changed. That she will stay clean. That she can be a good mom. That she isn’t going anywhere.

If Baker succeeds, she will have bucked the odds. New Mexico has the second-highest recidivism rate in the U.S., according to the state Department of Corrections. About 44 percent of women released in 2014 ended up back behind bars within three years, up from 33 percent in 2007. (During the same period, the rate for men also increased, but only marginally, from 45 percent to 50 percent.) 

And more women are entering prison. Nationwide, the number of incarcerated women has increased by more than 700 percent, jumping from 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017. A majority are mothers; according to a 2009 report, more than 60 percent of women in state prisons have children under the age of 18

In the coming years, there will be more New Mexico women behind bars — and likely more children living the consequences. While prison populations have fallen in many states, the number of imprisoned New Mexicans is expected to rise 16 percent overall by 2028; by that time there will be 13 percent more women imprisoned, the New Mexico Sentencing Commission estimates.

Children at risk

The children of incarcerated parents suffer in profound ways. They can develop mental health problems, including depression and difficulty forming attachments, as well as physical ailments like migraines, several studies have found. They often exhibit behavioral problems and they struggle in school, which in turn can place them at greater risk of becoming incarcerated themselves upon adulthood. A 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggested that parental incarceration can have as much impact on a child’s well-being as abuse or domestic violence.

Long before Baker became an incarcerated mother herself, she was the child of one.  She is a third-generation offender: Both her mother and grandmother were imprisoned in separate, unrelated embezzlement cases when she was a teenager. Both women; found their way after prison. Now they’re determined to help Baker, 29, do the same.

Like many women who end up behind bars, Baker bears the scars of trauma. While still a teenager, she was close by when a friend was shot to death while sitting in a car; Stephanie tried to save her. Another friend hung himself. Stephanie found him. A close uncle — her mother’s brother — was fatally shot by police after trying to avoid capture on drug-related charges. She herself has suffered violence: The father of her children, also a meth user, once dragged her from a moving car by her hair. The road burns lasted for weeks. 

In prison, drug-free and clear-headed, Baker began to deal with her painful past.

“Prison saved me,” she said a few weeks before her release. 

At first, she didn’t want to be saved. But gradually, after witnessing the transformation of other inmates and learning new ways of thinking, she began to understand the harm she had caused. The first paradigm shift began in the prison’s substance abuse program. The stories of her fellow inmates resonated with her and inspired her to share her own story.  She vowed to leave meth behind and forge a new life, for herself and for her kids. Eventually, she became a mentor in the program. Through an initiative that teaches parenting skills to incarcerated mothers, she learned how to be more patient, more attentive. She got her GED and helped other inmates get theirs. “I took every program they offered,” she remembered. Soon she was dreaming of becoming a substance abuse counselor and enrolled in a sociology course while still in prison.

“Having to go through the programming and having to face my demons, I’m a whole different person,” she said. “I have a whole new outlook on life and what I want life to be.”

Her transformation at Springer, aided by its drug rehabilitation, parenting and educational programs, makes it likely that she will succeed where so many others fail, said acting warden Robert Gonzales. A 2019 study by the New Mexico Statistical Analysis Center and Institute for Social Research found that women who take part in educational programs are less likely to reoffend. “As long as she goes back to a very good environment, and as long as she has a good sponsor, I think she has a good chance,” he said during a tour of the Springer grounds last summer, while Baker was still incarcerated.

Baker is unusually well-equipped to rise above her past. Unlike many former inmates, she has strong family support — which experts say is crucial in helping released women avoid reincarceration. She has a comfortable, safe place to live; for now, while she’s resettling and rebuilding a relationship with her children, she’s staying with her sister in Clovis. This spring, she’ll begin coursework at Eastern New Mexico University toward a degree in substance abuse counseling.

She knows from her parenting class at Springer Correctional Center that it’s better for released mothers to reunite with their children gradually, to minimize the disruption to their lives. So for now, she will stay in Clovis, visiting the kids in Roswell on weekends. Her grandparents consented to grant her custody, but both parties agreed to wait until she builds a relationship with the boys.

“She can’t step in as a full-time mom right away,” said Connie Baker, her grandmother. “She’s going to have to ease her way into it. She’s not used to the problems that come up every day.”

The cost of lost time

On a late September afternoon, two days after her release, Stephanie Baker sat in the living room of her sister’s house, wearing clothes borrowed from her — black jeans and a white-and-black striped shirt — waiting for her sons to arrive. It would be their first overnight visit together in years, and Baker was both excited and anxious. How, she wondered aloud, do you rebuild a relationship with kids you’ve barely seen for three years? 

She had wanted to spend the day watching the boys play soccer at their weekly Saturday games in Roswell, but instead she had to spend it with her parole officer in Clovis, learning the terms of her post-incarceration existence: daily check-ins, a 6:30 pm curfew, unannounced home visits. More than 100 miles away, Connie and Stephanie’s aunt and sister cheered the boys on. 

Stephanie’s incarceration has been hard on Connie and her husband. Not only did they have to watch another family member go to prison, they had to effectively become parents again at a time when most people are entering retirement. During an afternoon watching the kids play at the park near the family’s house, about a month before Stephanie’s release, Connie’s affection for them was clear. But she’s also ready to relinquish her role as a substitute mom. “I’ll miss them a lot,” she said, keeping an eye on the youngest as he slid down the slide. “But I’m also looking forward to it.”

The same is true for her husband. A few months before her release, Stephanie sent her grandfather a letter, apologizing for the past — the lying, the betrayal — and asking for a second chance. “I understand that you don’t trust me,” she wrote. “If you’d just let me prove to you that I am different.”

Stephanie is determined not to take her kids, or her family, for granted again. “Out there you don’t realize what you’re missing, because you’re so caught up in the game,” she said while still behind bars. “You don’t realize you’re missing that precious time with your kids.”

Her oldest, an outgoing boy with a bright smile, carries an anger and resentment borne from that absence. For years, he waited for his mother to visit; despite her promises, she rarely showed up. While she was in prison, he started acting out, talking back to his great-grandparents and being disruptive in school. He struggled to make friends.

Some studies suggest that the incarceration of a mother may be more damaging than a father’s. A 2018 analysis by researchers from the University of California-Irvine noted that a mother’s time behind bars “may bring more family instability than a father’s.” It may also contribute to poor cognitive development, though researchers warn that it’s difficult to parse how much of these consequences are because of the incarceration and how much is due to other factors. What’s more, the stigma and shame of having a parent in prison can impede a child’s relationships with other children, author Donald Braman wrote in the 2004 book Doing Time on the Outside

Acknowledging the vulnerabilities of these kids can help them weather the experience, said sociologist Kristin Turney, who co-authored the 2018 UC-Irvine article. “I think the best thing families can do is talk to their kids,” she said. “Give the kids a chance to sort of explore their feelings about it, and voice any concerns they have.”

Imprisonment also leaves an indelible mark on the parent. Stephanie’s years behind bars have changed her in ways she didn’t anticipate. At the Clovis house, waiting for the boys to arrive, she recalls a shopping trip to Walmart earlier in the day in search of clothes — “anything but orange.” Entering the store, she was so overwhelmed by the press of humanity and thousands of choices that she had to turn around and leave, empty-handed. “I was so anxious I couldn’t breathe.” 

Now she had another, happier reason to be anxious. Just before sunset, the boys arrived for their overnight visit. Throughout the evening, they vied for her attention. The oldest chased his little brothers around the coffee table. The middle one slid a stuffed dinosaur down the railing. The youngest wanted her help building a Matchbox car racetrack. She zagged from one to the other and back again in a happy whirl, serving up pizza as the kids played. 

A new normal

By mid-October, the reality of mothering three boys she barely knew had begun to set in. While the two youngest seemed to be adjusting well, the oldest disobeyed her, testing her newfound parenting skills. “I feel like he fears I won’t stay. And I know what that’s like, because I felt like that myself,” when her own mother was incarcerated, she said. 

Sometimes, she still slips up and snaps, she admitted. But more and more, she’s able to stay calm and say, “I am the parent, and it’s not OK to talk to me like that.”

Co-parenting with her grandparents and her aunt, who also lives with the boys, has brought its own challenges. After one child acted out recently while Stephanie was visiting, her aunt spanked him. She disagreed with the punishment but was reluctant to override her aunt in front of the kids. So she let it happen — but quickly stopped it. 

“That’s enough,” she said.

Life after incarceration — as a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a student — brings new lessons every day. “It isn’t as easy as you think it’s going to be,” she acknowledged. “But I don’t have to stress about next week, I just have to get through today and tomorrow.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting and innovative data journalism in New Mexico.