Eugene exhibit features pregnant women in prison

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by Associated Press

kgw.com

Posted on November 12, 2010 at 4:44 PM

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- Cheryl Hanna-Truscott is happy to share her photographs of children born to -- and tended by -- incarcerated women at a Washington state prison.

She asks only one thing in return: Don't call her young subjects "babies behind bars."

That label is sensationalistic and misleading, she said, and crops up often in media reports on the residential parenting program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.

"It conjures an image of babies being in a bare cell behind a grate of bars," said Hanna-Truscott, a certified nurse-midwife who works as a medical evaluator at a center for abused children.

But as her documentary photographs -- to be exhibited Friday in Eugene -- show, the only bars in these children's rooms are those on the sides of their cribs.

Only non-dangerous inmates who will complete their sentences within 30 months of their baby's birth can apply to the program. Those selected live in a special wing of the prison's minimum security area, Hanna-Truscott said.

"They live in their own small room -- like a college dorm room -- with just enough space for a bed, a crib, a desk and a clothing locker," she said.

The concept may sound like coddling criminals, but it's really about breaking the often generational cycle of substance abuse and criminal behavior by teaching women how to effectively nurture their children, Hanna-Truscott said.

She will discuss images from her seven-year documentary project at the University of Oregon Law School, as part of The Portia Project's annual conference. The Eugene-based nonprofit organization provides legal representation to the 1,000-plus women incarcerated at Oregon's Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville and to former inmates on postprison supervision across the state.

The Portia Project also works to educate the public about the "intended and unintended consequences" of the growth of Oregon's prison population as a result of mandatory sentencing laws -- which Oregon voters just this month agreed to expand.

To that end, this year's conference, "Prisons and People: A Focus on Women and Their Children" is free and open to the public. The conference also will feature a keynote speech by Coffee Creek Correctional Facility Superintendent Nancy Howton, and a screening of "A Sentence for Two," Randi Jacobs' documentary film about four Oregon women who bore children while in prison.

Hanna-Truscott calls incarcerated pregnant women and their babies "some of our nation's most forgotten, hidden and voiceless groups."

"My work seeks to raise questions about how our nation can offer best practices for this vulnerable population while still serving public safety needs," she said.

She, herself, "had never given much thought to inmates, let alone pregnant inmates," she confessed, until a friend who knew her photography skills asked her to volunteer taking pictures of incarcerated mothers and their families during holiday visits.

"So many of the women (there) were like grown-up versions of the children I'd see at the child abuse clinic," she said. "Many would talk about being sexually abused or given drugs by parents as children ... almost every one of the women in this unit had substance abuse issues, most borne from earlier trauma."

She now sees her photos as "really a plea" for Oregon and other states to consider residential parenting programs.

"I think we have to acknowledge that some of these women needed to be stopped in their tracks, needed to come here," she said. "But then, what do you do when you get them here?"

Hanna-Truscott knew the crucial importance of healthy maternal-child attachments from her work as a nurse-midwife and with abused children.

The residential program can intervene to help foster such bonds "when these mothers are captive, sober and in a structured environment where, given certain tools, it could change their destiny," she said.

At the Washington prison, those tools include Early Head Start educators working with the mothers to help them appreciate child development and the importance of being healthy and present for their baby, Hanna-Truscott said.

"There could even be a ripple effect when they get back into their communities by having these moms model what they've learned."

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