In Daidre Kimp’s room, the walls are pink and white and there are family photos on a bulletin board. A stroller sits in a corner. It’s early morning.
Kimp grabs a diaper, a tiny shirt and pants and lifts her smiley, 8-month-old daughter, Stella, from her crib.
They are getting ready for the day at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor, about a one hour drive from Seattle. It’s their home, at least until Kimp enters a work-release program next spring. She picks up Stella’s toothbrush.
“She’s brushing her three little teeth she’s got and we do that every morning,” Kimp says.
Down the hall in another room, 35-year-old Crystal Lansdale is helping her 2-year-old son, Kirshawn, get dressed. The toddler, standing on his mom’s bed, lets out a big yawn and tries to zip up his jacket while Lansdale straightens his collar.
WCCW is one of at least eight prisons in the country that allows a small number of women who are pregnant and give birth while incarcerated to keep their newborns with them for a limited time.
Supportive officials say since women make up the fastest growing segment of the country’s prison population, prison nurseries provide a way for mothers serving time to nurture and maintain a strong bond with their children.
“In here, I have a chance to focus on Stella” says Kimp, “and read books about smart love and confident parenting.”
There are more than one thousand women incarcerated at WCCW — about 300 more than the prison’s capacity. Those considered minimum security risks live in green cottage-like buildings with far less of the concrete and razor wire that surrounds maximum and medium security buildings.
Mothers in the Residential Parenting Program or “RPP” have keys to their rooms and travel the hallways carrying infants or pushing them in strollers. They can use a kitchen to prepare food for themselves and their child.
Daidre Kimp has been in the prison for a little more than a year. She’s an accountant who was convicted of stealing from clients. Like others in the program, she gave birth to her daughter at a nearby hospital in Tacoma, Wash., and then returned to the prison with her child. She’s 41-years-old, married and has three other children from a previous marriage — a son in college and two younger children who live with their father.
When she arrived at WCCW, Kimp was 14 weeks pregnant. She had never been incarcerated before and was scared and conflicted about keeping her child with her. Kimp’s husband, in the navy, was stationed hundreds of miles away.
“If she were to go home with him, I wouldn’t be able to see her,” Kimp says. “Just thinking about that made my stomach turn. He really didn’t want her to be here and I really struggled with, ‘Am I being selfish?’ ”
Ultimately, she decided she couldn’t be separated from her daughter.
The prison’s RPP program is only open to a small number of pregnant women — up to 20 at a time. They must be classified as a minimum security risk. They can’t have any record of sex offenses or crimes involving children. A committee of prison officials interviews applicants and sends a recommendation to the superintendent. If approved, the women get to keep their babies with them for up to 30 months. Women accepted into the program must be serving sentences no longer than 30 months — so the babies and mothers can leave prison together.
Sonya Alley is the Correctional Unit Supervisor overseeing the Residential Parenting Program at WCCW. She says the program gives women a tangible way to turn their lives around.
“It gets them out of their addictive past and co-dependency on drugs, or alcohol or relationships,” she says. “It seems oxymoronic but there’s some clarity when forced to do a prison sentence and forced to be a parent. It starts to shift the way the women think about themselves, their environments and wanting the best for themselves and their child.”
Crystal Lansdale says forming a healthy bond with Kirshawn is exactly what the program has allowed her to do. She hugs him as if for emphasis. Lansdale has three other children who live with relatives — a teenage son who stays with his father, and two daughters, ages 17 and 8, who live with Lansdale’s mother and sister. In Lansdale’s prison room, stuffed animals dot Kirshawn’s bed, while books and toys are stacked neatly nearby.
“We get a lot of stuff being in the baby program that regular, general population doesn’t have, like bedding, our walls are painted — my room’s blue and green,” says Lansdale. “We have a little more freedom to make it like home, more kid friendly.”
Lansdale puts her son in a stroller and meets up with Kimp and her daughter. They roll the children past bursts of flowers and garden beds on the prison grounds. They’re on the way to a cafeteria where they line up with other women for breakfast.
The kids are a big hit here. Kimp and Lansdale show their IDs to a corrections officer, then juggle trays of oatmeal, applesauce and pancakes. They have 20 minutes to get in and out before putting the children in their strollers again and walking to the prison’s licensed daycare and Early Head Start pre-school. They sign in, wash their hands, put on blue slippers over their shoes and greet the prison’s nursery workers.
Natasha Roberts heads the small professional staff of teachers and says the operation is just like any other nursery for kids.
“I don’t see anything different with them being here versus children from the outside,” Roberts says. “Although I do notice, and some moms have commented, that their bond with the child who is here with them is stronger than bonds with their children on the outside because they are essentially forced to be with their child almost 24-7, building a strong attachment with their baby.”
The mothers often drop in when they have breaks in their jobs or program schedule. It’s a moment to share lunch or just check on their children. The daycare is divided into sections of cribs, cushy couches and play areas. The center takes children as early as 6-weeks-old and up to 30 months.
Staying at the center, was a big change for 8-month-old Stella, says Kimp “because she’s used to breast feeding. The first couple weeks, they’d call me — ‘she won’t take a bottle, you have to come feed her.’ We decided I’d only come once a day so she could really transition into taking a bottle.” A transition necessary in order for Kimp to do her prison job or take part in programs just like a working mother on the outside.
As Kimp says goodbye and heads out to do clean-up chores in the unit, Lansdale kisses her son and goes to a pre-apprentice training program called TRAC, or Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching. It’s designed to help women get construction-related jobs when they leave. On this day the focus is carpentry. Lansdale says TRAC will help her break a cycle that so many face once they’re released — poor job choices. Many face low-paying jobs, if they can find one at all.
“I don’t want to be a re-offender,” she says. “I want to be self-sufficient and take care of my kids.”
Lansdale puts on a hardhat and joins other women practicing hammering nails and using a screw gun. She says TRAC will give her a real opportunity, while RPP has given her a chance to really connect with Kirshawn.
“I have a really good bond with my older kids and I was an active part of their life. I raised them until this last relapse, which led me into all of this, but the bond with him is just different,” she says, “and without the program he would probably be in the system.”
She says Kirshawn’s father isn’t able to play a role in his life because he’s in prison, too.
About 800 women have gone through the residential parenting program at the prison since it began in 1999. WCCW Superintendent Jo Wofford calls RPP a safe haven for both the women and the children.
“This gives them the opportunity to learn about parenting in a safe way. And it prevents a whole group of children from going into foster care that otherwise might, or with family members that parents are uncertain about,” Wofford says. “These children get opportunities to develop in ways they probably wouldn’t have, had their parent had them out on the street.”
The program is not without critics. James Dwyer, a law professor and child policy expert at College of William and Mary, is one of the most vocal.
He calls the programs a reckless hope and a gamble, though Dwyer says he has not visited a prison nursery. He says there is little evidence to show they provide long-term benefits for children or that they keep the mothers from returning to prison.
“It might, in fact, be the babies distract them from rehabilitation they should be doing instead,” he says. “They’re so focused on childcare and have this euphoria — they think they’ll be just fine when they get out of prison and they’re not. We just don’t know.”
There’s a reason for that lack of information. Men are often the focus of prison reform efforts, not women. Officials also acknowledge there’s been little long-term research centered on female offenders, even though more than 200,000 women in the U.S. are currently incarcerated. The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, says that’s a huge 700 percent hike in the number of women serving time since 1980.
WCCW’s Associate Superintendent Felice Davis says while the prison has no tangible numbers about recidivism, the bigger problem is lack of opportunity or services for women just released from prison. She says that means they still are figuring out what success looks like for women offenders.
“Often that success looks like being a better mom and having children better adjusted and hopefully not coming back to prison,” she says.
Ashley Templeman, 33, is one of them. Addicted to methamphetamine, she’s cycled in and out of prison. Nearly a decade ago, Templeman was a mom in the RPP program after giving birth to her daughter. She says when she left, life outside was overwhelming because nobody would hire a woman with a prison record. She started selling drugs again to pay bills and is now serving a 10-year sentence for her crime. Sitting in her room, Templeman shows off pictures of her now 9-year-old child and the two women who adopted her. They visit often.
“Even if I left and came back, this program gave me a lot of tools to be able to use when I was able to use them,” says Templeman. “I think if we wouldn’t have been together those first two years without any breaks that we [Templeman and her daughter] wouldn’t be as close as we are.”
Templeman is clean now and a caregiver in the parenting program helping other mothers — many who are detoxing from a drug addiction after giving birth.
What support, if any, the women receive outside of prison once they’re released is a big question. Some critics say sentencing alternatives — like home confinement or GPS monitoring, which Washington State does offer, may better serve women and children than prison nurseries.
As the day winds down, Daidre Kimp, gives Stella a bath and says she has concerns, too. She’d like to see more mental health counseling for women, “and more re-entry programs inside the prison and more things the RPP mothers could do as a group,” she says. Prison officials agree, but say resources are always a problem.
Crystal Lansdale is just looking forward to getting out soon. She tucks Kirshawn in and he lays on her, while she opens a children’s book about animals settling down for the night.
“It’s time to sleep my love,” she reads as Kirshawn’s eyelids begin to droop.
Lansdale says even though RPP life is often calmer than in medium and maximum security, it’s still prison. She says having her now 2-year-old with her has kept her from trouble. Arguments in prison she says can quickly escalate. That’s trouble, she says, that could mean losing her child.
“So having that in the back of your mind, it kind of gives you a constant reminder,” she says. “OK step up, be accountable for your actions, think about what you’re doing before you do them and it’s building good habits that will help me be successful when I leave.”
Crystal Lansdale’s release date is Christmas Day.
Daidre Kimp is scheduled to get out of prison in October 2019, but will transition to a work release program in the spring.
Both women insist when they leave Washington Corrections Center for Women, they and their children will thrive.