In brief but sweet reunions, inmates find Christmas

December 30, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Wanda Cornish woke up scared yesterday morning because she had to meet her 3-year-old daughter at a Christmas party -- in jail.

Ms. Cornish is an inmate at the Baltimore City Detention Center, facing trial on a theft charge. There since August, she had seen Jessica only once in that time and the girl cried constantly, upset because she could not hug or touch her mother.

Ms. Cornish wasn't sure it would be any different yesterday, at the jail's third annual Christmas party for inmate mothers and their children. Long after the guests had arrived in the jail gym, she couldn't bring herself to go to the party.

"I was afraid, I was scared, I was nervous," confessed Ms. Cornish. "Then someone said, 'Please go to your baby, she looks so sad waiting for you.' And I flew up those steps. She didn't cry, but I did."

Like this 33-year-old East Baltimore woman who spoke with touching candor about the drug habit that derailed her life, most of the 250 women in the jail have children but are reluctant to see them in the grim setting, officials there said.

When children do come, they are separated from their parents by security glass or bars, and must share the scant time with other relatives.

The jail's Christmas party gives women a chance to see their children for four hours, with no bars between them. The authorities keep the party as low-key as possible, with only a few planned activities, so parents and children can concentrate on one another.

Yesterday's guest list was children-only. Decorations in the barren gym were minimal. Some of the donated gifts weren't even wrapped. Santa's visit, and the chance for a photo with him, was merely the backdrop for reunions between almost 80 children and their mothers.

Once Ms. Cornish had Jessica in her arms, she was reluctant to let her go.

"I'm no less a person, no less a mother because I did some bad things," she said. "When I'm back out, and I'm tempted again, I'm going to say to myself: 'Remember when you wanted to hold Jessica and you couldn't?' "

Nicole Miller almost didn't invite her four children. She changed her mind and was glad she did.

"I really didn't want them to come here," said the 24-year-old Northwest Baltimore woman, who faces a charge related to drugs. "But I wanted to see them so bad."

Alexis Cedeno, a self-possessed 2-year-old, was awakened at 4 a.m. yesterday, so her grandmother could drive her down from New York for the party. Her mother, Tasha Jackson, has been in jail since July, waiting to be sentenced in a drug case. Because of the distance, she had seen her daughter only once.

"When you do it, you don't think about 'If I get caught, I'll be separated from my children,' " Ms. Jackson said. "You think about paying your bills and the holes in your baby's shoes. Now I miss my baby."

But Ms. Jackson also is gratified to see her family and friends rally around Alexis. She says she realizes now that she always had people who would have helped them. When she gets out, she promises, she won't make the same mistakes again.

For most of the children, yesterday's party was a second Christmas -- more presents, more food, another chance to be photographed with Santa. For their mothers, this was the only Christmas. Dec. 25 was just a bad memory.

"It felt like one of those rainy, dreary, lazy Sundays -- you know the kind of day?" asked Rena Crosby, as 8-year-old Marty squirmed on her lap. "This is the 29th, but it feels like Christmas."

Marty disagreed. Christmas, he said, was the day he got racing cars. Today was a different day altogether. A better day -- "I like being with my mom," he said.

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