Prison system separates mothers from babies After giving birth, inmates must go back to prison cells. PREGNANT AND IN PRISON

April 10, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

Against all odds, Sharon Gross, inmate No. 906-697, found joy in the birth of her son Hakeem.

Gross, a 30-year-old Baltimore woman serving four years for cocaine possession, struggled through 19 hours of labor in shackles and handcuffs. The restraints came off only when she was ready to deliver.

No friend or relative was allowed in the hospital to hold her hand and there were no little gifts for Gross after her ordeal -- prison rules prevented her from bringing anything back to jail.

Finally, only 36 hours after giving birth, Gross went home -- to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. Hakeem went with Gross' sister, Anita, to his new home in East Baltimore.

"It hurt me so much that I had to leave that infant there . . . knowing what I had gone through," says Gross. "I asked God please let everything be OK."

Gross has seen her son only a handful of times since he was born last August.

"I'm not sorry I had the baby, it's what I wanted," Gross says now. "I just wish I was there with him to see him grow up. By the time I leave here, he'll be a year and some months old. He doesn't even know who his mother is."

Gross was one of 37 women who gave birth last year while incarcerated in the state prison in Jessup -- an experience punctuated by the humiliation of going in chains to the hospital and by the heartbreak of saying goodbye to newborns within hours of their birth.

"I hoped I caught a temperature so they wouldn't release me from the hospital," remembers Dawn Dickey, a prisoner who gave birth to a daughter last December. "I told them everything was wrong with me. It didn't fool them.

"Oh boy, did I cry. I cried and I cried and I cried."

Unlike some states, Maryland does not allow incarcerated mothers to keep their newborns.

"They have to say goodbye. The baby is whisked off. They're in handcuffs," says Beth Berman Bounds, a social worker who helps the women find a home for their babies. "It can be devastating."

*

Pregnant inmates receive medical care at the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore. While the medical care is good, according to several prisoners, trips to the hospital are an exercise in embarrassment.

On the morning of an appointment at the hospital, the woman, no matter how pregnant, must disrobe. Naked, she squats and coughs while a female guard watches and checks for contraband.

The women ride shackled and handcuffed to the hospital, where they are taken first to an isolated ground-floor room known as the bullpen. One at a time, they are taken upstairs to the back door of the sixth-floor pregnancy clinic.

"They shackle you like a dog," says Linda Williams, a 34-year-old inmate from Silver Spring who is due to deliver in June. "My first visit to the clinic was the worst experience of my life. I cried all day when I got back. I felt so humiliated."

The goal of the hospital staff is to whisk the prisoners in and out of appointments, avoiding the crowded waiting room where several women sit watching television. Adding to the embarrassment, inmates occasionally run into pregnant friends waiting in the clinic.

The image of cuffed hands resting on protruding bellies is a turnoff for the hospital staff as well as the inmates. But prison security requires them.

"It is a problem we have often pondered -- how to adequately provide help for these women and maintain an appropriate public image," said Cassandra M. Watkins, the chief nurse in the University pregnancy clinic.

Once in the clinic, the prisoners see the same nurses and doctors as the other women.

"I treat them just like any other patient," says Edith Hitch, a nurse in the pregnancy clinic.

For some of the women, the experience is anything but joyful, she says. "Some are hard core. You give them the information like anyone else, but then I get the feeling they don't care, they just have to have the baby."

*

Linda Nitterright is pregnant and jammed into an overcrowded prison with more than 750 other women, but she feels alone. Nitterright, a 27-year-old South Baltimore woman serving 12 months for cocaine possession, is due to deliver her third child in late May. These days, she is on the verge of panic. There is a chance she will still be in prison when the baby comes and she has nobody outside to take care of the child. The father of the child she is carrying doesn't even know she is pregnant, she says. "I had no way to get in touch with him."

Her parents have their own problems. Her 19-year-old brother, to whom she was close, killed himself two years ago while jailed on drug charges. And the father of her daughter was shot to death in an argument over a woman.

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