Two hundred thirty three inmates gave birth while incarcerated in California’s prison system in 2011 and 2012, the most recent data available. Most were back in shackles two days later, their infants off to live with relatives or foster parents. KPCC’s Deepa Fernandes and photographer Mae Ryan visited pregnant women and new mothers housed at two very different prison facilities – and those raising their newborns.
Chapter One: Pregnancy
In the first days of 2013, Regina Zodiacal was escorted from a Santa Ana jail cell to a bus headed to the California Institute for Women, a state prison in Chino.
Zodiacal had been in and out of trouble for minor crimes for years and her conviction this time was not remarkable – armed robbery for a $66 shoplifting incident gone wrong, and forgery for cashing bad checks.
“I grew up on the streets,” said Zodiacal, who left home at 15. “I’ve always been on my own and got money in the way I knew how - and that’s fast money.”
But in one significant way, Zodiacal was different from most of the women who routinely board this bus: She was five months pregnant.
Despite all the trouble she’d been in and caused, this was the one thing she was determined not to be - the girl who “went to prison to give birth.” Yet, here she was.
Pregnant women like Zodiacal make up less than 1 percent of female prisoners – 188 California inmates gave birth in 2011 and 45 in 2012, when officials began moving prisoners to county jails to comply with a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding.
Despite their small numbers, these women have posed a thorny question for guards and rights advocates for decades: how do you balance what’s best for the community with what’s best for the babies born to incarcerated felons?
For the most part, their children are raised by someone else in the outside world – a relative, a foster parent or an adoptive family.
Officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it’s their policy to provide standard pre- and post-natal care in prison.
“I get my prenatal vitamins and I go see the OB,” Zodiacal said in an interview in a common room at CIW, as the prison is commonly called. She had just attended a drug rehabilitation meeting.
The OB she’s referring to is Corazon Navarro, who’s been the resident gynecologist at the prison for 26 years. She works in the medical ward, among faded murals of balloons and teddy bears.
Navarro sees about 15 patients a day with a variety of gynecological complaints. She reserves Mondays for pregnant women, many of whom she said have received very little prenatal care on the outside.
“In order for us to be able to help them,” Navarro said, “we have to see them on a regular basis: detect their problem, identify their problem and solve their problem.”
Prison policy is to transport laboring inmates to a nearby hospital to deliver. The births cost taxpayers between $6,500 for a normal delivery to about $14,000 for a Caesarean section with complications.
If labor is so advanced there’s no time to wait, the ward is equipped to deal with the birth of a child, according to Felix Figueroa, a Lieutenant officer at the prison.
But what if you went into labor and nobody heard you? That thought rattled inside Zodiacal’s head as she took daily walks around the arid prison yard during the waning weeks of her pregnancy this past spring. She feared she would she be left to give birth alone, her cellmate as her only help and companion.
“In our rooms, we only have a little window and I’m really down the hall,” Zodiacal said. “So my biggest fear is that the officer who is working won’t hear me or I’d be trapped in my room going through labor.”
Chapter Two: Birth
Christina Bray was also pregnant when she was arrested, in December 2011. She was in her 8th month – the baby was due any day.
Bray is a white-collar criminal. While working as a bank manager at a San Jose branch of JP Morgan Chase, she and her husband swindled $1 million from a client, a 97-year-old retired handyman named Nick Bellane. They used the money to buy cars and jewelry.
Suspicious about the attention he was receiving from a bank employee, a niece called authorities.
As the Brays pulled up to Bellane’s home to visit him in the days before Christmas 2011, an investigator from the San Jose District Attorney’s office was interviewing the elderly man. Bellane had no idea why so much money would be missing. The couple left in handcuffs.
As she sat in a police station booking area, Bray was trying to figure out how to break the news to her three daughters. Then she felt a familiar pain.
With the stress of being arrested, she was going into early labor. The contractions had begun. But this birth was nothing like the others.
She said at first the booking officers didn’t believe her. When she was finally transferred to a local hospital, she felt the nurses on duty “judged” her and weren’t as caring as they had been in her three prior labors.
“I was in there for a crime and police were outside monitoring the whole thing, so people were just afraid to come in and give me the service that … they would have given to anyone in labor,” she said.
But Bray was not ignored. She said when the baby’s heartbeat slowed, the medical staff sped up the labor to get the baby out.
Bray said she was “shaking and traumatized” when Lola Mae Bray came into the world at 12:17 pm on Dec 23, 2011.
Baring complications, prison officials said inmates get 24 to 48 hours in the hospital with their newborns before they’re taken away.
Bray said she had about 24 hours with Lola. Then a nurse came in the room and told her it was time to say goodbye.
“I put her to my heart and I just told her that this is mommy’s heartbeat and I will be with you soon,” she said. “Don’t ever forget about my heart.”
Lola was bundled up and sent home with her grandparents.
After a few more hours in the hospital, Bray was transported to a cell.
Chapter Three: Motherhood
Prison officials said the post-partum care they provide inmates is equal to that of anyone who has just given birth in the outside world. Women get a check-up a few days after returning to prison from the hospital, and another examination after two weeks.
Brittany Bass was in the CIW’s medical ward in May for her two-week post-partum check up with Navarro.
“There’s really no after care here, they just handed me a Kotex pad and said have a good day,” said Bass, who was pregnant during most of her one-year sentence for parole violation. Her underlying crime was second-degree robbery.
Bass had been taking Motrin for the pain from standard stiches. Prison officials hadn’t let her bring back the cooling Tucks pads or the squirt bottle hospitals provide new mothers to treat the wound. During this visit, Navarro prescribed a Lydocaine gel.
“You know you’ve been on the street, no care at all - and then suddenly when you come to prison you want a Mercedes Benz treatment and we cannot afford that here in prison,” Navarro said. “But we try to give them as best as we can, based on the standard of care in the community.”
For years, advocates complained about substandard medical care in California prisons and began filing major lawsuits in 1985.
According to Denise Johnston, an advocate for incarcerated women who has spent years inside prisons, the lawsuits resulted in “significant improvements” in obstetrical care.
“This is not to say the care became optimal or even very good,” she said. Many common complaints, like anxiety, are not really treated, she said.
As for the babies born to women in prison, in almost every case they are sent to live with relatives or the other parent, if the mother can arrange it. When she can’t find someone to take the newborn, he or she goes into foster care.
Bass found a couple to adopt her newborn daughter, who had been diagnosed with Down Syndrome in utero. (Hear the adoptive parents’ story in the audio montage.)
Even though she feels good about the parents she chose for her daughter, Bass described the experience of being separated from her newborn as “heart wrenching.” She wasn’t able to talk to others much about it. Instead, she described herself as being stuck in her head. She would suddenly find herself crying.
Zodiacal also fell into depression after the birth of her son in May, according to her cousin, Cari Hernandez.
She had arranged for Hernandez, who she considers a sister, to take Jayden Elijah. Zodiacal’s own mother had been in and out of prison and she was mostly raised by a dear aunt, Hernandez’s mother.
In phone calls from prison, Zodiacal told Hernandez she wanted to see photos of Jayden. But Hernandez didn’t have any extra money to print and mail them.
Navarro said she commonly sees depression among post-partum inmates separated from their babies. Academic studies over the years have shown trauma to both mother and baby when they are separated at birth.
In the 1970’s, women’s advocates began to make a case for keeping mothers and babies together - even if the mother is incarcerated. Feminist scholars were researching the impact of the increasing female prison population. They documented the emotional hardship caused to children.
If things didn’t change, they predicted “profound harm” to children living without their incarcerated mothers.
No matter what the studies said, releasing a woman from prison to care for a newborn was a political non-starter. So different states tried different experiments. The most common was nurseries inside prisons.
California tried something different: the Community Prisoner Mother Program.
In 1985, the state legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Republican Gov. Deukmejian, that created a program for low-level offenders who were pregnant or new mothers to live with their children in a “community setting.”
“This was actually really remarkable,” said Johnston, the advocate who works with children of incarcerated women.
California has operated nine different facilities where mothering inmates could live with their young children.
Most have closed, in part because the same low-level offenders who are eligible for the program – DUI-convicts, burglars, minor drug offenders - were transferred to county officials to ease prison overcrowding.
The only prisoner-baby program left is in Pomona. The Department of Corrections rents rooms from a non-profit that runs a residential detox program. The state pays for up to for 24 inmates, but not all the beds were full during visits in July and August.
The complex looks nothing like a prison - groups of dorms surround a large playground. Inside are a nursery, toddler care rooms, a Head Start program and a Kindergarten classroom run by the Pomona Unified School District. There are no bars, no barbed wire and no armed guards.
“If you have a baby in prison, you have your baby and you hand your baby over to somebody,” said Regina Dotson, the senior corrections officer in charge of the inmates at the Pomona facility. “If they’re in my program, they have their baby and they come back here and they get to bond with their baby.”
Zodiacal did not qualify because of her armed robbery conviction.
But Christina Bray did.
She had researched various programs she thought would get her closer to her family and out of the prison confines – she even completed fire training.
In January, days before she was slated to ship out to fire camp, Bray got word she’d been accepted to the prisoner-baby program.
But as she rode the corrections van to the Pomona facility, she became anxious.
“Was it right to bring a baby to prison?” she wondered.
Despite decades studying California’s prisoner-baby programs, Johnston said she still has questions about whether they are successful.
“These programs have never actually studied child outcomes,” she said. “Nobody really knows specifically in California what happens to the children that participate in the programs.”
A year ago, as the van pulled up to a regular looking, cream-colored building where Lola was waiting inside, Bray wondered whether her daughter would even know who she was. They had only seen each other three times in 13 months – and one of those times they’d been separated by glass.
But during the reunion, she said the toddler reached for her and kissed her happily.
“I was trying very hard not to cry,” Bray said. “And I could feel my knees getting very weak, but I didn’t want for her to get scared - so I just held on to her.”
Life at the facility is somewhere between prison life and regular life.
Inmates have daily chores and must attend mandatory parenting and other classes. They’re housed in open barracks – with mother, child pairs sleeping next to each other.
But inmates can have lunch with their children, take them to the facility’s playground and take them off site for doctors’ appointments.
During a visit several months ago, Bray appeared singularly focused on getting through the day without creating the least ripple. She seemed keenly aware that despite the extra freedoms, she was still in prison.
“All the inmates, we have a time at 5:30 called ‘door knock’, when we have an opportunity to get our mail and sign up for our phone call,” Bray said. Inmates get one 15-minute phone call per day - and only one phone in the row of them is allocated for inmate use.
Santa Clara Deputy District Attorney Cherie Bourlard, the elder fraud prosecutor who handled Bray’s case, didn’t know she’d been transferred to the mother-baby facility. After a pause, Bourlard said it was “good to hear that they allow the bonding to take place.”
Bellane, the elderly victim of Bray’s crimes, died in February 2012, two months after Bray was arrested. Bourlard said he was crushed that someone he trusted stole from him.
Zodiacal is still serving her sentence at the California Institute for Women. Her son Jayden is 7-months-old and lives with Zodiacal’s cousin and niece in Santa Ana.
Bass completed her sentence for parole violation and has been released. Her daughter, Alexandra Rose, is being raised by adoptive parents Christine and Adam Collins, in an open arrangement.
Bray didn’t stay in Pomona. A diligent researcher, she found a program that allowed her more freedom and was much closer to her three older daughters in the Bay Area. After serving two years of her sentence, Bray was transferred to the Female Offender Treatment and Employment Program in September.
She wears a tracking bracelet on her ankle and has a nightly curfew, but lives in an apartment complex run by the program. She can work or go to school out in the community and visit with her older daughters on the weekends. She can go to their sports matches, take them shopping.
Bray said she’s thankful for the chance to “reunite with my family and mend the broken hearts where they have been broken.”