Send Mommy home for Christmas Children of women in prison make heartfelt pleas to Santa

December 15, 1991|By Sheridan Lyons

Because of an editing error, later editions of The Sunday Sun described Maj. Nancy Grimes, a correctional officer, as helping arrange a holiday party for children of inmates at the Baltimore Detention Center. Major Grimes was involved with a party being conducted simultaneously at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

1% The Sunday Sun regrets the error.

One Santa Claus got some special requests yesterday. Along with the usual Ninja turtles, video games and Barbie dolls, hundreds of children were asking "for their mommies to come home."

That was one of the top three requests, Santa said in an interview during a break at the annual Jaycees' Christmas party at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women at Jessup. The party brought inmate mothers and their children together.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

At least two of the mothers may see that wish granted: Both Mary Lake, 27, of Wheaton, and Lizette Anderson, 21, of East Baltimore, said they have made parole and are just hoping they'll be released in time for the holiday. Ms. Lake's incarceration involved a bad check and Ms. Anderson's drugs.

A survey of the women at the prison found that the 81 percent with children have an average of three children each, said Nancy J. Nowak, executive director of the Governor's Office of Justice Assistance, and Ricka Markowitz, a research statistician for the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families.

The study translates to 1,217 children with mothers in prison, Ms. Markowitz said yesterday.

The survey performed last spring did not include -- but has since been expanded to cover -- the 825 women in jails in Baltimore City and Maryland's 23 counties, plus about 120 women in other state facilities. The initial study is to be followed by lengthier interviews, then even more intensive group and individual meetings with focus groups of inmate mothers.

"We know their kids are potentially at the highest risk," Ms.

Nowak said. "We have to find out what problems they have."

The study found that more than 60 percent of the children were living with grandparents or other relatives; 19 percent were living with their fathers; 5 percent were in foster care, and 9 percent were in "other arrangements."

Although there are reports that some children are homeless, with both parents incarcerated, there were no such cases documented, the study's authors said.

At any given time, 18 to 20 women inmates are pregnant, said Warden Melanie C. Pereira. The newborn child must be turned over to someone outside the prison as soon as possible.

Even if the prison were not so overcrowded -- yesterday, 769 women were packed into the facility built for 356 -- the expense and potential liability of having babies stay with their mothers is prohibitive, the warden said.

Dawn Dickey, a 26-year-old inmate from Northwest Baltimore, said at the party that she "can't even think how to describe" how it was to have to give up her daughter Kari just 48 hours after she was born.

Yesterday, Dickey held on tightly to the 13-month-old as the little girl enjoyed a candy cane.

"She knows who I am, but I don't think she knows I'm her mother," Ms. Dickey said seriously. "It just takes a part of you away."

She received a 10-year sentence on a drug charge. She said she believes the judge threw the book at her because she was attending college and should have known better.

"This will be my second Christmas in prison," she said.

The same was true for Bridgett Teat, 30, of Centreville on the Eastern Shore. "This will be my second Christmas without them," Ms. Teat said of her children: Keneka, 11, Ericka, 4, and Eric, 2. She said she would be going into the boot camp program to try to reduce her 6 1/2 -year sentence for drug possession.

Joyce Wright, 22, of Oxon Hill, said her 3-year-old son Jeffrey "was only 8 months old when I got locked up. This party, being longer, gives us time to get to know each other. He used to be so shy with me, but now he knows me, because of this. Four whole hours today!"

Jeffrey and Tiara, her daughter, stay with their father, said Ms. Wright, who will have served three years on her release in February.

Jeffrey was too afraid to visit Santa at the party, but Tiara wanted a second visit.

Santa Claus was Jan-Marie Simms, a childless 23-year-old inmate who played the part with gusto. "They said I had the personality for it," Ms. Simms said of her debut as the jolly man in red. The string of children trailing behind rated her Santa a hit -- even bigger than the dance contests.

After the contests, the group feasted on hot dogs and chicken nuggets, ice cream and cookies and punch in the dining hall, as sunlight glinted off the razor wire visible outside through the windows.

Meanwhile, at the Top of the World in the World Trade Center, about 100 children of inmates at the Baltimore Detention Center gathered with their parents for a party sponsored by the Jaycees group there.

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