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|The agencys Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative (BAMBI) began in April with the placement of three offenders and their newborns at the Santa Maria Hostel in Houston. At left, Birtie Barber feeds her son, Koy, a bottle of formula. Middle, two-week old Arabella Alvarado gives a slight smile after waking in the arms of her mother, Jacy Alvarado of San Antonio. Right, Kortny Courtney of Austin tends to her newborn in his crib.
Photos by David Nunnelee
Just before the camera shutter clicked, two-week-old Arabella did something precious. Snuggled in her mothers arms, she gently woke from her slumber and smiled.
She smiled for you, beamed her mother, state jail offender Jacy Alvarado of San Antonio, to the photographer. Thats a good girl. Thats my baby girl.
It was one of those keepsake moments for a new mother, one that Alvarado would have missed had she not been part of a new collaborative program that keeps some state jail offenders together with their infants rather than immediately separating them after birth.
The Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative, or BAMBI, teams multiple TDCJ divisions with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to provide child development education and training for new offender mothers in a residential setting. The program began in early April with the placement of three state jail offenders and their babies at the Santa Maria Hostel in Houston, a halfway house contracted through UTMB to provide up to 15 residential beds for new mothers.
Wanda Redding, a Rehabilitation Programs Division program specialist who serves as a TDCJ liaison to BAMBI, said the legislative initiative passed in 2007 to combat recidivism is modeled on the Federal Bureau of Prisons Mothers and Infants Together program in Fort Worth.
We differ in our program in that when our females are released, theyre going to go home with their babies, she said. With the federal program, they spend six months bonding and then the baby goes with the caregiver and the mother goes back to the federal penitentiary. Weve designed ours so that they go home together.
On average, some 250 babies are born to TDCJ offenders each year. Most offenders give birth at the TDCJ Hospital Galveston facility following three months of prenatal care provided by UTMB at the Carol Young medical unit in Texas City, where they are encouraged to participate in Baby Basics, a workbook curriculum that tells pregnant women what to expect while expecting. Redding said BAMBI participants are also urged to participate in the prenatal class so that they can continue the curriculum once they move to the residential center.
All babies born to TDCJ offenders were once placed with caregivers shortly after birth, and that will continue to be the case for offender mothers not eligible for BAMBI. Those selected for the program can spend approximately six months at the residential facility with their babies, with their length of stay depending on their individual situation.
Redding said that, in most cases, candidates for BAMBI are offenders scheduled for release within six months following their due date. They must
be minimum-custody offenders with no past or current conviction for any violent offense, arson or an offense that would
require registration as a sex offender. They must be in good health, be free of felony and immigration detainers, and have no major disciplinary convictions.
Being accepted into BAMBI doesn't mean that an offender will be able to move on to the residential facility with her infant, however. Redding said the program doesnt really begin until after birth when both the mother and baby are re-evaluated by medical and security personnel.
Its an initial pick, she said about the selection process. It cant be finalized until after she gives birth and we again look at them to make sure that theyre fit, both medically and in terms of security, to be in a freeworld facility. So even though theyre picked, theres still a brake that can be applied.
Misty Timms, serving 18 months for debit card abuse in Bastrop County, was initially picked for the program but had to be removed after giving birth to an infant with health problems. A three-time offender, Timms, who also has a 19-year-old daughter, said she turned to crime to support her drug habit. During much of her life, she said, her daughter was raised by her great-grandmother.
I was there but I really wasnt a mother figure, Timms said. I was so young and didnt really know how to be a mother.
They are the best mothers they can be, Redding said about the BAMBI participants. Many of them have not been mothered themselves. Theyre not quite sure what that is, being nurtured and just enjoying the moment. We want to offer them the opportunity to get to know their baby.
Alvarado, who also has three sons, was selected for the program in the ninth month of her ninth pregnancy and plans to return to San Antonio with her baby girl when her nine-month sentence for forgery expires in July.
Im going home and starting over, she said. My other children are there and Ive got to be part of their lives, too.
Alvarado, 35, said she gave up on her other children when her marriage fell apart and she started drinking heavily.
I just gave up, and now I know I dont have to do that anymore, she said. We can all change, and this program gives me the opportunity and the foundation to start.
Redding said in-prison nurseries were once the norm across the country but that most were closed by the 1970s. Since 1994, however, the states of Nebraska, Washington and Ohio have opened in-prison nurseries as a means of combating recidivism, and New York has expanded its program. Other states, including Alabama, California, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Vermont, have opened community-based nurseries like Texas.
Our goal is to reduce recidivism, Redding said. We want that mother to fall in love with that baby so much that there's no way she could ever leave it to come back and see us."
Any change that we can bring about to stop the cycle of incarceration, and losing the next generation as a consequence, is a positive step, added Rehabilitation Programs Division Director Madeline Ortiz.
This has given me a second chance and Im not going to mess it up, said 21-year-old Birtie Barber, a Dumas native who was scheduled to be released May 21 with her baby boy after serving a year for forgery. Because she delivered before the program started, Barber, the mother of four, was separated from her newborn for about a month before they were reunited at the residential facility. Even then, she said her baby boy cried a lot at first because he was bound more to his dad who had cared for him during their brief separation.
Its very important for the mother to get to know her child and for the child to get to know the mother, she said. This is for me and him, so he can get to know me.
Kortny Courtney's mother took care of her son, Dylan, for the week they were separated following his birth on March 26. Albeit brief, it was the first time the mother of three, serving one year for possession of a controlled substance in Travis County, had been separated from one of her newborns.
Just love, the 31-year-old said when asked what she and the baby might have missed during their short separation. Theres nothing like being with your child in their development stages, that they know you from birth. Separation from that broke my heart.
Im a good mother who just made bad decisions, she added. This program keeps me reminded of what Im jeopardizing if I keep making bad decisions.
Its been a blessing all the way around, Alvarado said, turning to look at her daughter, who had again fallen asleep. I think its going to help a lot of people because it makes you realize what you can lose. Now I feel like I have a chance. Yeah, I can be a mommy now.