Published July 06. 2014 4:00AM
East Lyme - A little girl tugs at her pink-patterned sun dress. With her matching pink rhinestone flip-flops, she is dressed as if she's going to church or to a friend's birthday party.
But instead, she's going to a prison, the York Correctional Institution, to visit her mother.
"When can I see my mommy?" she asks the woman waiting beside her in the lobby of the prison visiting center. The woman just smiles. A correction officer calls out a last name and the two rise to make their way to the visiting room. One at a time, they walk through a metal detector.
In a small holding area, a group is forming. Suddenly a metal door slides open. The little girl, about 6 years old, smiles, knowing she's inching closer to seeing her mother.
This particular visit on a recent Saturday is special. Outside of normal visiting hours, the Mom and Me program takes place every other month. Created in 2012 under then-Warden Kevin Gause, it allows inmates who meet certain criteria to visit with their children for nearly two hours instead of the standard one-hour visit.
"We realized that there was other collateral damage, that there were other people around that were getting punished by the offender's incarceration," Counselor Supervisor Damian Doran said. "We recognized that the children were getting punished when they didn't do anything wrong."
Mom and Me visits also allow personal interaction. Mother and child may sit next to each other, exchange countless hugs, play board games or do a craft project. For nearly two hours on visiting day, the inmate is not known by a number. She is simply "Mom."
It's different from the regular, sterile visit, where the offender sits in a burgundy chair and, across the table, the visitor sits in a white chair, and personal contact is limited to a brief hug or kiss.
A door opens and the little girl runs into her mother's arms. Today, they'll paint a birdhouse and play board games.
Doran said input from a survey and a focus group that included inmates and prison staff helped design the program. To participate, offenders must submit an application to librarian Joseph Lea. A committee of educational, mental health services and parenting professionals determines whether the inmate may participate. Lea then forwards a list to social worker Laura Selsky so she can tell the mothers the results.
To qualify, inmates either must be enrolled or have completed a parenting program and must be free of active disciplinary tickets. The children - ages 18 and younger - have to be on an approved visitors list. Inmates may participate three times a year - for a maximum of three, two-hour visits - and may earn an extra visit if they serve as a program volunteer.
"We really want them to be better parents and connect with their children," Doran said. "The fact they showed interest, completed a program, makes us believe that they are more serious about being a better parent for their child."
'Guilt and shame'
Half of the 1,130 females at York as of July 2 had one or more dependents, according to the state Department of Correction. On this day, 11 mothers visit with 19 children and are joined by three workers from the state Department of Children and Families.
But not everyone gets a visit. Five inmates are left disappointed when their children don't show up. One of those is Heather Enslow, 37, of Salisbury, who didn't realize she had to re-apply to the program for each visit.
Enslow is serving a four-year sentence for stealing money from the elderly woman she cared for. A growing Percocet addiction after an elective surgery led her to steal.
Before that, she was a typical mom. She attended school events, made home-cooked meals and cared for her 11-year-old twins and 19-year-old daughter. Now her husband cares for them by himself.
"I never left my children," Enslow said. "It's such an adjustment not being home with them. I'm missing their school years. Every day I feel guilt and shame, but I try to work through it."
Enslow said she first participated in the Mom and Me program in April, and the experience was wonderful.
She and her children made cards, did origami, played Jenga and Chutes and Ladders. She spent one-on-one time with each of her kids in case they needed to tell her something.
"It felt like freedom," Enslow said. "It was the first time in a year that I felt that way. I felt like a mother again."
Painting birdhouses, playing Sorry
During the visit, the women guide their children through activities such as painting birdhouses.
Janet Lamb, a volunteer through the Norwich Diocese's prison ministry, manages the birdhouse table. She smiles at the children, presenting them with a paintbrush and a Styrofoam bowl filled with colored paint.
"Which one do you want to choose?" one woman asks her two adolescent daughters. She asks her son whether he'd like to paint. He initially resists, standing back, but when he sees they are enjoying themselves, he reaches for a birdhouse, too.
"I knew you would want to paint one," the mother says, smiling and gently stroking his head.
Lamb, a nurse for 30 years, said she has been volunteering at the prison for a year.
"As a nurse, you learn a lot about personalities," Lamb said. "One thing I learned, it could be any one of us. Where's the fine line between me and them? What gave us the coping mechanism?"
In between rounds of playing Sorry, a heavily tattooed mother visits with her two adolescent sons. A DCF social worker sits far enough away to give them space but still be able to listen.
The mother tells the younger boy he needs to be more respectful of his caretaker. If he keeps acting up, they will be separated. The boy and his mother both start to cry. She tells him that she can't live without him.
But then the conversation quickly turns more mundane and less serious. The boys fill their mother in on the latest happenings at home, even gossip about relatives.
They laugh as they take turns. She tells the boys, "You need a career, not a job. You have to do something with yourself."
Visits lift spirits
Gary Kleebatt, spokesman for DCF, said York should be applauded for its efforts to maintain the relationship between mother and child.
"It's an important program, especially because many of the women at York will be released in the foreseeable future, and we hope that as many of them as possible can resume their role as caretaker when that's appropriate," he said. "We do know from experience that mothers that go through a bad time in their lives are able to rehabilitate themselves and recover. For a child, there is no one more important than their mother or father. There's no substitute for that normal kind of interaction and for a child, that means everything."
Thirty-two-year-old Yajaira Rodriguez, an inmate and permanent aide arts coordinator for Mom and Me, has been with the program since it started. On this day, she helps the children make pinwheels.
Rodriguez, who is from Hartford County, is serving a 15-year sentence in connection with a child abuse case. Consequently, she lost custody of her four children. She knows she will never get a visit from them. Watching other inmates interact with their children can be painful at times, yet Rodriguez continues to volunteer because she feels that helping others improve their relationships with their kids is a form of redemption for her.
Through prison, she says, she has learned about herself. She has learned that she's creative and artistic, that she never developed a true sense of self. She now realizes that she liked things because other people liked them or did things to meet other people's expectations.
"When I look at a child, I can't help (but wonder) if my daughter looks like that now," Rodriguez said. "This fulfills me. I have made a bond with all the kids. I can teach the kids something that they will remember. It makes me feel like I'm not forgotten."
Rodriguez sees the spirits of the other inmates lift after they participate in the program. One perk of the program is that Selsky, the social worker, takes a photo of each mother with her child. Selsky delivers two copies to the mother, who in turn may decide to mail a copy home.
"That is huge," Rodriguez said. "It's the only time you can take a photo with your kids. It captures that moment in time. When they get their photo, they like to show it off and brag about their kids."
Selsky teaches the parenting class on being a responsible mother. It's 27 hour-and-a-half sessions, two sessions a week. The inmates are given a workbook and assigned homework.
She said the class encompasses what it means to be a responsible mother. It covers barriers to parenting and positive discipline and discusses the effects of domestic violence and drug addiction on the mother and child. Students discuss how to talk to children about being incarcerated and how to handle a child's difficult questions.
"The children know mommy's not there and something is going on," Selsky said. "The inmates have expressed guilt from being away from their children. They are missing a lot of their child's and loved one's lives. This program helps facilitate the bond between mother and child."