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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Rebecca Nelson, an inmate of the Wyoming Women's Center in Lusk, gave birth to son Taylor at the hospital at Casper in April 2009.

It was a lonely experience.

"I think not being able to have a family member such as your husband there to help comfort you. ... That was really hard," Nelson said Tuesday in a phone interview from the Lusk institution.

It also was hard to have to leave her baby in the hospital when she knew her parents from Montana would not be able to pick him up for 18 hours.

"And to know I couldn't really bond with him much because I knew I couldn't keep him," she said.

Nelson has only seen the baby twice since he was born, but another visit is scheduled for December.

She communicates with Taylor and her other three children who live with her husband in Cheyenne through phone calls and mail.

Nelson, who is in her mid 20s, has served two years of a nine- to 10-year sentence for aggravated assault and robbery.

The Women's Center recently began a program to allow the inmates to communicate with their children, she said. The staff prepares 20-minute videos on DVDs of the women reading or talking to their children.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal is recommending that the Legislature appropriate $1.2 million to remodel existing space at the prison for a women and children's program.

"Once the program is in place, inmates would be able to keep newborn children with them for a limited period of time and other inmates would be allowed to have day and overnight visits with their children," the governor's request said.

Phil Myer, the warden of the Women's Center, said Bob Lampert, the director of the Department of Corrections, asked the previous warden to prepare a proposal for a nursery program. Myer said the department is dedicated to "best practices" and the nursery program falls under that category.

Since 2007, women inmates at the Lusk institution have delivered 15 babies. The total this year so far is three.

The women delivered their babies at the hospital in Casper.

In 95 percent of the cases, Myer said, a family member picks up the baby at the hospital. In the rest, the infant is placed under the care of the Department of Family Services.

The new medium-security prison at Torrington has a small unit for women inmates.The plan is to transfer pregnant female inmates from the Lusk facility to Torrington for their last trimester of pregnancy.

This is better for the women, Myer said, because they are closer to emergency services if needed than if they stayed at the Lusk institution.

The mother-to-be also can take with her to Torrington a companion inmate — "so there's somebody there to keep them company so they're not isolated," Myer said.

If they qualify, the women can return to the Lusk facility with their infants. They will also go through a parenting program.

Women serving life sentences do not qualify.

The Women's Center has 217 inmates.

Other states that offer the nursery program are California, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington and West Virginia.

The area at the Lusk prison to be remodeled once housed the intensive substance abuse treatment unit. That unit is now housed in an addition completed in 2007.

The old unit is now used for storage.

"We'd rather see it used for something," Myer said.

If the Legislature approves the money, construction can be started next year and the program could be available by 2012, he said.

 

Contact Joan Barron at joan.barron@trib.com or 307-632-1244.

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