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Program offers inmate mothers time with childrencomment (0)

January 3, 2008

It’s not quite light this December morning, and a ballerina wearing a puffy pink coat dances on the sidewalk in front of the Hardee’s in Priceville.

Montravia Watkins, 8, skips and twirls, turning back to her grandmother and big brother to point out that the white van is coming.

Montravia climbs aboard and smiles shyly at twin sisters Latisha and Lateefah Cawthorn as she moves into the back seat. Her 14-year-old brother, Chris, follows her.

Montravia sits down and bounces a little, as happy as any little girl going to a Christmas party.
Only this party is in a prison.

The prison where her mama has lived for as long as Montravia can remember.

One Saturday a month, volunteers from six local churches take children on the 420-mile round-trip to the Julia Tutwiler Prison, Alabama’s main facility for women near Montgomery. A nonprofit organization, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM), arranges for crafts and a meal for the children to share with their mothers. It’s the only three hours they are allowed to see one another each month.

“This is a good thing,” says Montravia’s grandmother, Emma Jean Cohen, 62, as she settles into her seat with an old woman’s soft groan. “They take us down, and we don’t have to pay. You know how it is. We don’t have that much.”

Cohen pauses to snap her seat belt.

“We probably wouldn’t get to go if we had to pay.”

Cohen, a widow, works as a home health aide while Montravia and her brother are in school. She wonders how many years her daughter, Tracy Cohen, 31, will have to serve. She wonders how many years she herself has left.

Tracy Cohen was sentenced to 20 years when Montravia was 3 for shooting and wounding a woman who had fired a shot into her house. “She should have left it to the police,” Emma Jean Cohen says. “But it do seem like a long time. Maybe she can get time off for good behavior.”

In the van’s back seat, Montravia, who says she likes math, tries to count on her fingers how many years her mother has left to serve. She runs out of fingers. Even on her second try.

Jan Mackenzie has been volunteering with the program through her church in Huntsville for about a year, and this is her third trip. A retired registered nurse, she thinks the ministry a perfect fit for her own lack of abilities, as she tells it.

“I consider myself reasonably lazy and not creative,” Mackenzie says. “So when I see something I can do, I think I should do it.”

Mackenzie looks at Latisha and Lateefah, who have fallen asleep with their heads together.

“There’s just certain people that I think need some help.”

Corrections officer Virginia Brown meets the van as it pulls in front of Tutwiler Prison. A brusque Santa, she carries presents in large black garbage bags for the children, issuing them with impersonal efficiency as the children step off.

Carol Potok, the executive director of AIM, urges the children to line up with their packages for a picture. She angles them so that the prison’s high wire fence is not visible in the background. AIM volunteers print the photos on a portable printer so the inmates and children each have that souvenir of the visit.

“Smile,” Potok urges the children. “I’m seeing some solemn faces.”

The children and teenagers file in quietly in the shadow of the guard tower and go directly to a small chapel building. Even the babies, carried by their guardians, are silent.

Their mothers have been waiting inside for more than an hour. They come in early to move chairs and set up tables to get ready for the visit. Brown volunteers to work the visit shift every month because she thinks the program is important. Also it gives her the opportunity to watch the women with their children and do what she can to let them be mothers, at least for that morning.

“We make them work to see their kids,” Brown says. “It’s their responsibility to set it up.”

Inside, children greet their moms with everything from big hugs from the little ones to diffident nods from the teens. They move to the toys and games brought in by AIM volunteers to find their favorites.

Brown says inmates know that misbehavior could result in their not being able to have that visit. “It keeps them out of trouble,” Brown says. “They want that visit.”

“I’ve not been in trouble once since I’ve been here because I want to go home,” Tracy Cohen says as she sets out the pieces of a game to play with Montravia and Chris. “I don’t really have anybody but my mom and my kids.”

Cohen has earned a cosmetology certificate since she’s been in. She works as a hairdresser in the prison. Her mother’s hairdresser has agreed to give her a chair in her shop and supervise her when she gets out.
Nearby, Montravia notices that volunteers have laid out the makings for cookie decorating. Her mother leads the children to the table where they can spread frosting with spoons — even plastic knives are not allowed in prison — and decorate the cookies.

Near the cookie table, Latisha and Lateefah, 15, sit knee-to-knee with their mother, Georgia Cawthorn. They chatter happily, complaining about teachers and updating her about their high school ROTC unit.

And they let her know the man she was arrested with when she was caught selling marijuana has already been released, even though he had a prior record. She rolls her eyes and shakes her head. She has nothing to say to that.

It’s not unusual for a woman to be sentenced to a longer term than a man is for the same crime, Potok says. AIM and other groups have been trying to change state sentencing laws to achieve greater gender parity.

“I think society has more of a sense of outrage if a woman commits a crime,” Potok says.

Cawthorn reaches to smooth Lateefah’s hair back to her scalp. They should have done a little more with their hair, she says, sounding like any mother of teenage daughters. She worries that Latisha has gotten too skinny. She worries that Lateefah has gained weight.

“They’re real well-mannered, and they listen,” Cawthorn says, smiling at the daughters she had when she was 13. “I’ve never had any trouble out of them.”

“And you’ll never have no trouble out of us,” Latisha says, squeezing her mother’s hand. (RNS)

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