I met my granddaughter for the first time in a prison visiting room.
I’ve been locked up in Maryland’s women’s prison for more than 18 years, since my daughter was 8 years old. In May of last year, she came to visit me carrying her newborn first child. I was overwhelmed with emotion as she placed the baby in my arms. I cried as I held my granddaughter, gave her a bottle and smelled her wonderful baby smell. It was a deeply meaningful moment.
Unfortunately, it is now merely a memory. Because of a new Maryland corrections department rule, in place at all 24 state correctional facilities since November, I can no longer hold my granddaughter like that during visits. Worse, my fellow inmates who are young mothers are not allowed to cuddle their babies and young children.
The new rule bans physical contact between inmates and visitors until the end of our allotted hour. At that time, we are permitted to reach across the wide tables that separate us for a quick hug.
Inmates and adult visitors detest this rule, but at least they understand its restrictions. Small children can’t. One look at the expression on their little faces reveals what they must be thinking: First she left me. Now she won’t hug me. Doesn’t Mommy love me anymore?
“Visits are heartbreaking,” a fellow inmate told me after seeing her toddler. She said her son calls the corrections officer a “mean man” who won’t let him touch Mommy. Thank goodness her sentence for breaking and entering is short. She’ll be home before her son turns 3.
Another inmate isn’t so lucky. She’s a mother of four serving a 20-year sentence for selling drugs, and she recently received a “ticket” (a form of prison discipline) because her 4-year-old didn’t stay on his side of the table. He has been visiting here for two years. He didn’t know that the rules had changed, and he crawled up on his mother’s lap, like always. (Four-year-olds are not known for their obedience, so he did this twice.) A corrections officer terminated the visit and wrote the ticket, which resulted in two weeks of cell restriction — meaning this inmate wasn’t permitted to leave her cell except for obligations like school or work. She could use the phone only during daytime hours, when her children weren’t home. All this because her son crawled into her lap.
The justification for the new rule is security. Some visitors have been known to smuggle contraband into Maryland prisons. In one incident last September, a child was caught trying to pass a package of drugs to an inmate at the men’s prison in Hagerstown.
Security concerns are certainly valid. Our visitors understandably have to pass through a metal detector before being pat-searched and randomly subjected to drug-sniffing dogs. And we inmates accept being strip-searched after every visit. These searches are intrusive and humiliating, but they are the price we pay for an hour with our loved ones. Cracking down on contraband, though, shouldn’t require that family bonds become collateral damage.
The bond between a mother and her child is among the most important relationships in any human’s life. Countless studies have shown that young children do not thrive without physical affection. They need to be hugged and kissed and cuddled. They need to feel love. The children of inmates are no different.
Now, at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, an incarcerated mom can hold her child only at two special events per year: Family Day and Children’s Day. These events enable visitors and inmates to interact outdoors, with activities, food, games and music. Unfortunately, the allowed number of visitors and the events’ hours have been decreased in recent years.
There is also a lovely Baby Bonding program that offers Mom a few hours once a month with her kids if they are under age 4. The Baby Bonding room is cozy and decorated for children, but very, very small. Fewer than 30 inmates are able to participate in the program, though many more of the 850 women here are eligible.
Meanwhile, I gaze across the visiting-room table at my daughter and granddaughter. When they visited last month, driving three hours and nearly 200 miles to get here for the one hour they’re permitted, a corrections officer came to our table to remind us that we couldn’t touch. My granddaughter kept reaching out, and I had to avert my hands. My daughter, who forfeited her embrace with me so I could hug the baby for the duration of our goodbye, remarked that it was the saddest visit she’s ever had.
I understand that most people have little sympathy for prisoners. We committed crimes. We have been convicted and are receiving the punishment that we deserve. But we are still women. We are still mothers. Let us hold our children and grandchildren. They have committed no crime.