Jailed moms send tape-recorded hugs

Program allows women to keep some connection with kids

October 31, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In a soft and composed voice, Danyelle Wallace begins reading "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" to her 9-year-old son, Devin.

Women all around her are shouting and jail doors clanging. But as she speaks into the microphone, the concrete walls and steel grate-covered windows of the Towson Courthouse Detention Center fade into the background.

It doesn't matter that Devin is miles away. All that's important is how much he will like this book -- and the sound of his mother's voice on tape.

"It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia," the 30-year-old Northeast Baltimore woman says, reading aloud the last few lines of the book.

Wallace hesitates, closes the book and then adds, "I love you, Devin."

At the suburban jail, she is among 13 female inmates who recently recorded a story for their son or daughter, then placed the book and cassette into a large, yellow envelope that was mailed by volunteers from nearby Ascension Evangelical Lutheran Church in Towson.

"We're supposed to minister to one another whether they be sick, needy or in prison," said volunteer Carol Weingart. "We also have children of our own, so we can relate."

Twice a year, she and other Storybook Project volunteers work with the Department of Social Services, bringing books, tape recorders and cassettes to the prison cafeteria.

Begun by a Lutheran church in Illinois, the Storybook Project is designed to help inmates stay connected to their children in some small way. For the women behind bars, it's a reminder that they're not just a number, but mothers, too.

"We feel like this is a vital part of our ministry," Weingart says.

A small gesture

Of the 146 women at the center on charges ranging from prostitution to attempted murder, most awaiting trial, more than half are mothers. Most rarely see their children, often because they don't want the youngsters to visit them in jail.

In light of the pain they've caused their children, the storybooks are a small gesture, most of the women say.

"I know I've hurt my kids, but I'm glad that I'm getting this behind me," says LaTaunya Leonard, who cashed others' checks for an embezzlement ring for two years and landed in jail for the first time at age 29. "All I want is my freedom and my family now. I will tell my daughter about my time here when she is a little older," she said. "I will tell her that Mommy was taught a lesson."

Rehabilitation

For hours, the buzz of their voices bounces off the cafeteria walls as they read the books and make similar pledges over and over. Most of the women here are rarely allowed to leave their cellblocks. They get no outdoor breaks, other than work release. They share a television set and a telephone that can be used only to make collect calls. Many attend church services offered twice a week at the jail. Some take advantage of GED classes there. About 87 percent of the women, including Wallace, participate in substance abuse-treatment programs.

"My son wants me to go tell the judge that he wants to be in here with me," says Wallace, who has been arrested 20 times in the past 11 years after getting hooked on heroin when she was 15.

"That sticks in my head. I know I've made him sad. I just tell him I have to get myself together. I ask him to be patient with me.

"This tape is not going to take the place of hugging him, but it lets him know I still love him and that I think of him," Wallace says.

Across the room, 27-year-old Veronica Phillips' voice soars above the others as she reads aloud, "Who Are You?" a book full of brilliant colors, for Jordan, her 8-month-old.

Like Wallace, this isn't Phillips' first time in prison. She's been arrested three times for stealing to support a heroin addiction. This time, she missed seeing her son learn how to crawl. She probably won't see him take his first steps.

"I didn't come from a broken family. I wasn't abused," says Phillips. "I used drugs because I wanted to. I had the best of everything and did this to myself. My mom said, `It's not about you anymore.'

"Before, I didn't have anyone to worry about," she says, her eyes brimming with tears. "Now there is my son. It's not his fault that I'm in here."

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