Editor’s note: Montana Women’s Prison inmates Amber and Janet agreed to share their thoughts on spending Christmas in prison apart from their children. The women and their children met in a conference room at the Billings prison in early December for an
interview conducted by two-way video with reporter Jennifer McKee, who was in Helena. The newspaper agreed not to identify the women by their last names or hometowns to protect the identities of their children.
Janet’s 4-year-old is bouncing around as 4-year-olds do. She is wearing a cute little outfit, and someone has seen fit to do her hair. This must bring Janet some relief: Her baby has recently been fussed over.
Janet’s 12-year-old has a big, beautiful smile, but the circumstances of this meeting, in a white cinder block room at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings, are harder for the older child to shrug off.
Janet, an alcoholic, is spending this Christmas in prison.
Her three children will spend Christmas in three different homes in two different states. The look on Janet’s face as she recounts how she got here would break your heart: happiness, as her youngest crawls into her lap, but pain —so much pain — and a lifetime of regret.
“I’ve hurt my children,” she says.
Janet is among the 167 Montana women who will spend this Christmas in prison. Most, like her, are mothers. Unlike many incarcerated fathers, most of the women here had been their children’s primary caregiver, said Jo Acton, warden of the Montana Women’s Prison.
There will be a special meal, “a real nice presentation,” Acton said of the prison’s Christmas plans. They’ll have a Christmas tree in the mess hall and will open up the prison gym to accommodate the overflow of visiting family. Every inmate will get a gift package with candy, lip balm, little things they don’t get at other times — each paid for with revenues from outgoing collect phone calls, sales from the prison’s commissary and some donations.
But Christmas in prison has natural and broad limitations that drive home the enormous empty space these mothers’ absence leaves in the lives of their children. It is a sad time — but a time of hope, too.
Women represent one of the fastest-growing segments of Montana’s prison population. Save for a two-year drop in Montana’s incarceration rate two years ago due to the state’s new lockdown treatment prisons, the percentage of women in prison has been growing since at least 2003, according to state information.
(Men still vastly outnumber women, with almost 3,000 Montana men in prison last year, compared with 185 women.)
Women are a different kind of inmate. State statistics show the vast majority are serving sentences for drug offenses or crimes like theft or forgery that are often linked to drug addiction. Few women are behind bars for violent crimes. Contrast that to the men’s prison, where most inmates are serving time for violent crimes. There are more than twice as many men serving time for rape — 350 — than there are inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison.
The women’s prison is also different kind of prison, Acton said. Several years ago, the entire institution adopted a “therapeutic treatment” model, in which daily life is structured to promote healthy, positive life — similar to a rehabilitative center. And because so many of the inmates are mothers, almost all the inmates are enrolled in the prison’s parenting classes.
That’s where the hope comes in. Although she’s separated from her children and likely will be separated from them next Christmas, too, Janet said she has become a better mother in prison and it’s about more than her sobriety.
“I’m learning to be more nurturing,” she said. “I’m more involved in their schooling.”
A single mother in Billings, Janet was working as a nurse’s assistant when she got hurt on the job. A doctor prescribed painkillers. As a self-described “addictive personality,” Janet was soon hooked. When the pills ran out, she turned to alcohol.
Janet is in prison for driving while intoxicated and for being a “persistent felony offender,” a tag prosecutors often pursue if an offender cannot control behavior after multiple arrests. That fits Janet. She was already serving a suspended sentence for a felony DUI — and for having illicit drugs — when she was pulled over for DUI again this January.
Janet remembers everybody sitting down to big family dinners on Christmas. She took such care to have “perfect Christmas tree,” and she was known to take every ornament off and start again if the tree didn’t turn out right even as her children groaned.
This year, she must ask permission to decorate her cell. She can’t receive any presents at all and can give to her children only what she can make in the prison’s hobby shop.
Still, Janet seems determined to make her incarceration a positive experience.
“I want to learn every tool that I can in here,” she said, acknowledging that her lifestyle before her imprisonment taught her children “a lot of bad habits.” She practices her parenting during special visits where’s she’s allowed to cook for her children, interacting with them as any mother might.
Janet says she now aspires to earn her college degree when she’s released and has a message for other parents who are still drinking: Stop now. “It’s not worth being away from your children.”
The complications of motherhood, prison and addiction is perhaps most starkly seen in inmates like Amber: She came to prison pregnant.
Amber was let out to have her baby in a Billings hospital. She spent four days in the hospital with her newborn. She came back to prison, bringing the baby with her for a brief, two-hour visit.
Then, Amber said, she walked her newborn baby to the front of the prison and turned her over to a cousin living in Washington state who had agreed to be the baby’s caretaker.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Amber said, wiping tears.
Amber has spent the better part of her adult life addicted. Her parents have been raising Amber’s 6-year-old son since he was a baby, and they found him strapped to a couch in the Billings flophouse where Amber was living, a bottle propped in his mouth. Amber and the boy’s father were in another room with the door closed so soundly asleep, Amber’s father says, “they didn’t even know we were in the house.”
Talk to Amber about her kids and you soon see the deep scars drugs have left in her life: She can’t tell you about Christmases with her son. Amber was so often in jail or messed up, she has missed most of those and other important days. Ask her about her 6-month-old daughter. Is she clapping? Laughing? Rolling over? Amber doesn’t know.
She does, however, know this: There’s a chance Amber will be out before Christmas and if she is — and if Washington state will take her — Amber is going to be with her baby this Christmas.
She has a lot of proving to do, say her parents. Her son is, in a way, lucky. For most of his life, he hasn’t had a mother in his life, but he has grandparents who have devoted themselves to giving him a loving, normal life.
“He’s the sweetest little guy,” his grandmother says. “He has a heart of gold.”
He likes to blow kisses, and you’d better catch them, she says, or he’ll take you to task for it.
Both have tried to protect him from his mother’s addiction, but they don’t lie to him, Amber’s father says. Amber’s persistent addiction has had a profound effect on the boy. He grew up calling his grandparents “Mommy” and “Daddy,” and even after they correct him, the boy will explain that he knows he has a different mother and father, but his grandparents are his “Mom” and “Dad.”
Rebuilding broken relationships and, in the case of Amber’s baby girl, building new, belated relationships from scratch is a main focus of the Montana Women’s Prison, Acton said.
“They have to learn how to share,” Acton said. “They have to learn how to sacrifice. Guilt moves some of them. It strengthens their resolve.”
That dedication, along with the prison’s strong rehabilitative emphasis, shows in the recidivism rate for Montana’s female offenders. It is significantly lower than that of men. Fewer than 2 percent of Montana’s female ex-prisoners commit new crimes that lead to new prison sentences, statistics show, and just over 26 percent of probationers will wind up back in prison for failing to follow the rules of their release. Among men, 2.6 percent of ex-cons will commit new crimes and nearly 40 percent of probationers will be revoked back to prison.
At the end of her visit, Janet hugs both her girls close; she does not want to let them go. They are quiet. Janet is crying softly.
“This is really devastating,” she said.