A holiday gathering behind jail's walls As inmates meet with their children, the question is: 'When will you be home?'

December 31, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Darlene Green's four children gathered around and traded stories about Christmas, schoolwork and friends yesterday. But most of all, Green said, "They want to know when I'm going to come home."

It is not an easy question to answer at a Christmas party for inmates at the Women's Detention Center in downtown Baltimore. Doing time is something they want to forget.

"My children understand that I can't go home until somebody lets me," said Green, 38.

For 150 women awaiting trial or sentencing, yesterday's party in the jail's gym -- with gifts, Santa Claus and food -- gave mothers a rare chance to talk, hug and cry with their children.

Green, who is awaiting trial on a drug conspiracy charge, won't let her two sons and two daughters visit during the rest of the year because they are barred from making contact, separated by a metal screen. But on this day, "I can touch my children," Green said.

The annual event began five years ago when Gwendolyn Oliver, director of inmate activities, saw a need for the children to come together for the holidays. Most of the female inmates are raising their sons and daughters alone. The children stay with relatives or foster parents while their mothers are in jail.

"It is very important that children be able to bond and maintain a relationship with their parents," said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the city detention center, adding that the program helps inside and outside jail walls.

"Children miss their mothers, which further contributes to juvenile delinquency," Flanagan said. "It is extremely important that the children be able to relate to their parents during the most important holiday in our society."

Workers transformed the drab gym into a Christmas party room, with tablecloths decorated with candy canes and bows, a lighted tree, red poinsettias and a pile of gifts. Parents and children sat around long tables and took pictures with Santa. Children were given gifts -- all donated by local businesses. The food was different -- hot dogs and hamburgers and spicy beans instead of the usual prison fare of bologna sandwiches.

Joann Coleman, 38, has been behind bars for most of her 4-year-old son's life. She had just completed a three-year stint in prison in Jessup on a drug conviction when her house was raided by police for drugs last month, and she was arrested again.

"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now I'm right back here," Coleman said, while holding her son Jerry McNutt. Her trial is scheduled for Feb. 10. "He asks why I'm here, and I tell them that I did something bad and this is my punishment."

The day is especially important for the children. "I love my mother," said Dominique Williams, 14. "As soon as I walked in here, she shouted, 'Let me hug my babies.' "

Lisa Williams, 31, is spending 30 days in jail for violating probation on a drug conviction. She failed to show up for a drug test. "I really messed up this time," she said, "but this day is a blessing."

For many of the children, the gifts of toy cars, stuffed animals and games were the only presents they got for Christmas.

The incarcerated mothers wanted family time.

"This is like a Christmas present for me," said Eartha Evans, 43, who was with her two sons, Marty Johnson, 6, and Bernard Williams, 11.

She was arrested on a drug conspiracy charge in October -- she said she was just standing at a corner -- and her trial is scheduled April 14. She said she wants to get into a heroin clinic to kick her addiction.

"My children don't understand," Evans said. "I tell them that Mommy did something wrong, and this is the price she has to pay. They keep asking me when I'm going to come home. I can't answer that."

Pub Date: 12/31/98

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