Mother tells of life behind bars

By Brianna Piche and Kieu Tran

Sabrina Parks loves pushing her grandchildren on the swing set. The New Orleans native looks forward to their Saturday visits, where they read, color and, sometimes, play kickball with "Nana."

They have never been to grandmother's house on the West Bank, and they never will. For 30 years, Parks has lived in a dormitory guarded by chain-linked fence and razor wire, wrapped in the lush greenery of St. Gabriel, La. When her grandchildren visit Christmas, they escape the winter chill by huddling together on plastic gymnasium chairs.

Parks is no ordinary grandmother.

She is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder of her husband at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. She raised her two children, and now her four grandchildren behind bars. Parks lives alongside more than 120 "lifers" in the only all-women's prison in state.

Roughly 80 percent of LCIW's inmates are mothers.

"I wasn't there; I missed out on it all," Parks said of her children's childhoods. "That was the deep-rooted guilt I had to deal with."

Parks said missing her daughter's marriage, the birth of her first granddaughter, learning of her son's incarceration have been difficult. She finally was able to forgive herself when her son sent her letters during his three years in prison, when he experienced life from his mother's eyes.

Her son was 8-years-old when his mother was sentenced to life in prison and witnessed his father abusing his mother for years. When the physical and emotional abuse spiraled out of control, Parks reacted. Her husband's death stopped the abuse, but ripped their family apart.

Parks said she knows about 30 other inmates at LCIW who share similar criminal circumstances—life sentences for second-degree murder of a boyfriend or spouse in response to domestic abuse.

According to Louisiana Law, anyone convicted of second-degree murder must serve life in prison without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. There are no exceptions for cases of self-defense or domestic violence.

"It's Louisiana. It's a man's state. Women are the minority and that's very obvious," Parks said. "I don't see it changing for the better in the foreseeable future."

At her pardon board hearing in 2004, Parks said her daughter was carried out of the room in hysterics when pardon was denied by a board of four men and one women.

Parks said she has grown closer to her daughter, a sheriff, because they experienced life daily from "the other side" of the prison bars.

"I believe this is where I'm supposed to be right now, and if it can be used to benefit someone else, then that's O.K.," Parks said. "God's a big part of my life and I know he has a purpose for everything. Sometimes he uses the foolish."

Through LCIW's Program for Caring Parents, Parks spends one-on-one time with her grandchildren from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. once every five weeks.

Parks said that she is grateful for the time, but it is not enough.

"Anything is better than not having it at all," Parks said. "I pray for more months with five Saturdays."

The Program for Caring Parents was the staple of her own children's childhoods. Her daughter, 32, and her son, 38, were two of the earliest child participants in the program when Parks was first sentenced to spend the rest of her life in St. Gabriel.

Parks recalls longer and more frequent visitation, where her children were granted free roam of the prison facility, including her cell in the dormitory where they could close the door and have private conversations, away from the hubbub.

"I was afraid, most of all, that [my children] wouldn't know me," Parks said, recalling that her children were aged 2 and 8 when she was arrested.

Now, children are only allowed in the prison's gymnasium, several classrooms converted into playrooms and the large prison lawns with a solitary, rusty swing set at its center. However, these areas are not open for children during normal visitations.

Adult friends and family of inmates are restricted to four hours of visitation each per month after undergoing a background check. Minors are also limited to four hours, sans the background check. However, the 5-hour Program for Caring Parents allows children extra time with their mothers without impinging their monthly visitation restrictions.

The Program for Caring Parents is restricted to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of inmates with proof of kinship for ages up to 10 years. However, children from 11-17 can participate in the Annual Teen Program, held either in May or June, in order to spend more time with their incarcerated loved ones once they have aged out of Caring Parents.

Patricia Jackson, 40, has been incarcerated for eight years for armed robbery. The Monroe native is the mother of three daughters and grandmother to 13-month-old Genesis.

When Jackson was incarcerated in 2002, the Program for Caring Parents allowed her youngest children to visit faithfully. However, her 13-year-old was ineligible for the Program and her middle daughter aged out of Caring Parents a year later. The establishment of the Annual Teen Program in 2004 helped strengthen her bonds with her older daughters.

One of her greatest struggles was the Christmas before her youngest daughter turned 11, when she was about to age out of Caring Parents. Jackson recalls sinking into a deep depression when her daughter reminded her, "Mommy, you know this is my last Christmas with you."

"It's really hard because I've been incarcerated a while, but [the prison] tries to make it easier on us," said Jackson. "My daughters are grown up. There are a lot of things I've missed."

Although her daughters are now ineligible to participate in Caring Parents, Jackson "feels good" after visits with her grandbaby. She said she was raised by a good family but wants a better life for her children and grandchildren.

"I was in a bad situation, with bills to pay and I was laid off from my job," Jackson said of her life eight years before. "I thought it was a quick fix—to get this money and take care of my kids."

By the time her sentence is up, Jackson's eldest daughter will be 43-years-old.

Women Apart

Death Row inmates, who are only allowed to leave their cell for one hour each day, and prisoners convicted of sex offenses must be granted permission by Warden Jim Rogers to interact with children. Mother sex offenders are common in prison, said Asst. Mental Health Director Drue Gaines.

Louisiana law is one of the few states to treat prostitution as a sex offence, said Gaines. An overwhelming number of the women are incarcerated for drug abuse and prostitution to support drug habits. These women are convicted of "crimes against nature" for their prostitution offense, usually accepting compensation in the form of money or drugs. Women are further charged as sex offenders if they engaged in felatio or anal sex, illegal by Louisiana statute. Incidents of pedophilia, for which "crimes against nature" are most often recognized among male offenders, are rare among women.

"It's a one-sided law; it's just tragic," Warden Rogers said. "There's case after case with some sort of sexual abuse with these women."

This specific sentencing gives female offenders a longer sentence than if they were charged with prostitution, a lifetime label as a sex offender, and almost no chance of state-allowed reconciliation with their children when they are no longer required to live behind bars. Male participants in the prostitution seldom are convicted.

Gaines said that although prostitution is not a sex offense in other states, it is in the "good ol' boy state" of Louisiana.

Gaines is a social worker at LCIW who facilitates groups in anger management and interacts with inmates daily. After working nine years as a social worker in case management in men's corrections, she said it's more difficult working with women.

"Women like to talk. Women are more relational, while men are more task-oriented. You have to keep more boundaries. They want to be your friend."

Gaines said women have approximately twice as many mental health problems as male prisoners. Warden Rogers said the prison budget for female inmates' drugs to maintain mental health is also twice that of male offenders, which causes financial strain on other inmate resources.

Rogers worked full time at five men's prisons before becoming the warden of LCIW. He said a women's corrections facility is a drastically different environment. In addition to higher medical bills, the prison budgets for female-specific items, such as the $80,000 allocated annually to buy sanitary napkins.

Depression and separation anxiety from children are most common among newly incarcerated mothers, but Gaines said the women most miss their children around holidays. The prison's mental health services makes sure to have family-oriented programs available for the women. Similar programs are rarely available at men's prisons.

In his two years as warden, Rogers said the Program for Caring Parents and the annual Christmas Extravaganza have been highly successful. About 100 offenders take part in the Caring Parents each session.

"There are programs for men, but they don't happen as often," Rogers said. "They're usually only one to two times a year, but it varies from institution to institution."

The annual Christmas Extravaganza and annual Children's Day Program (held around Easter) are all-day events that allow children of inmates to eat together, play games and open gifts provided by local charities. LCIW's recreation therapist Jeanette Dent organizes games and activities for all the programs.

Gaines said the female offenders "absolutely love" the extra time with children through the prison programs. She claims they are beneficial for the prisoners' mental health and happiness during incarceration.

"When you have happier offenders, there are fewer discipline problems and fewer cases of crying, depression and acting out."

Warden Rogers said that the prison population fluctuates daily as women are released and newly incarcerated. The prison's capacity hovers around 1,100 inmates on any given day. There are two death row inmates and 126 women who will spend the rest of their lives in prison, but 470 inmates with 6 or fewer years.

Although there are fewer women incarcerated in Louisiana than men, Rogers said that the prison system is not designed to accommodate women's needs as well as men's. Where the women's facility neighboring all-male counterpart, the Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility (EHCF), has an inmate-run newspaper and magazine, the women have no similar programs. Although the proportion of female mental health inmates is much higher than males, the prison medical ward often is understaffed to meet inmate needs.

"There's not nearly enough resources for the women as there are for the men," Rogers said.

Not all prisons are created equal

Gender can determine the programs provided for inmates. In Louisiana, it determines whether an inmate can raise his or her children.

The Elayn Hunt Correctional Facility, including other Louisiana-based men's prisons, does not offer family-catered programs like LCIW's Program for Caring Parents. Public relations officer Darryl Campbell for EHCF said there is disparity because men and women have different needs.

"Like on television, where kids are seen with their mothers in prison, we don't have that here," said Campbell. "They are more involved in programs for mothers and children in women's prison because society looks on mothers as the source for raising kids."

The Hunt facility, however, offers weekend visitations for the inmate's children or family members.

The men's facilities have rehabilitation programs the women's prisons lack, Campbell said, such as the Intensive Motivational Programs of Alternative Correctional Treatment (IMPACT). However, many Hunt programs allow the adjacent women inmates to participate.

IMPACT is Hunt's most notable inmate resource. The boot camp style program forces the inmates to think by teaching them discipline and responsibility, Campbell said. Non-violent inmates can voluntarily enter the six-month program, potentially reducing their sentence with success in the program.

Participants document their progress in the program through a "Where are You Today" exercise, a popular IMPACT treatment technique. Inmates reflect on their life before prison and gauge how far they have come.

"This exercise forces them to think about the consequences of their actions and responsibility for their choices," Campbell said. "It teaches them common sense."

Programs like IMPACT show the disparity between Louisiana women's prisons and men's prisons, suggesting that Louisiana men are given more opportunities behind bars. For example, EHCF's "Walk Talk" monthly newsletter only recently allotted pages for LCIW's female inmates to discuss inter-prison issues. "Walk Talk" has been circulated among male inmates for years, while female offenders have not had the funds nor the writing workshops to create their own.

Other states are more conscientious on providing equal resources and programs to its inmates, according to correctional officer Ngan Montano.

Montano, who works at Pleasant Valley men's correctional facility in California, said inmates there get everything in prison.

Pleasant Valley offers its inmates Internet access, library aid, technology, education and life skills. The same accommodations are provided to other prisons — women and men facilities alike, Montano said.

"There aren't any visible differences within the (men's and women's) programs or resources," Montano said. "There's not one resource or program they can't have."

Although Montano said equal-gendered opportunities are widespread, the California women's facilities follow Louisiana's trend of having more family-based programs available than for men.

Female and male prisoners also are treated differently by prison staffs. Men are treated with slightly more force by correctional officers.

"When the men prisoners are acting out or being overly disruptive, we can use force like knock them down and make them stop," Montano said. "But with the women, the officers have to be more sensitive and they have to talk to them to calm them down."

Forceful treatment of inmates is decreasing, Montano said. She credits the change to the influx of lawsuits against the prisons. Prisoners are suing for unwarranted force.

The lawsuits could be an underlying reason why California offers gender-equal resources and programs for prisons, Montano said. "They sue more (here), so they could get more resources," Montano said. "The state wants to keep them appeased."

As a former Louisiana resident, Montano also recognizes cultural differences between Louisiana and California prisons.

"Louisiana has tough correctional facilities. But now California accommodates all of its prisoners — men and women — and provide for them like they're living on the outside."