Moms (and Kids) Behind Bars

updated 11/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

The following is a conversation overheard at a California state prison last August: "Mommy, come lay with me and read a book," says 6-year-old Robert Stinson-LaBrie. He hands his mother, Faith Sepulveda, a repeat drug offender, his favorite Digimon book. "Robert, we read that every night. Are you sure you don't want another one?" asks Sepulveda. Robert doesn't answer. He just cuddles up to her and starts to read.

California's Family Foundations—where Sepulveda, 23, Robert and his baby sister Anna, 3 months, share a spartan suite of rooms with the families of three other inmates—is a prison built for women and their children. The innovative lockup in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Fe Springs is the first of its kind—a detention center where child-rearing is the centerpiece of the state's efforts to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders serving short terms for drug and property crimes. "We're trying to break that cycle of crime," says correctional counselor Sean McCray. "We're trying to turn the mothers off drugs and onto their child."

Opened in 1999, the $5 million facility at first seems more like a boarding school than the big house: There are no cells, no orange jumpsuits and only a few windows with bars. "I wanted it to be separate from a regular environment so that children would be comfortable," says the program's founder, former state senator Robert Presley, "and so women would feel comfortable focusing on their children." Still, life for the 35 inmates (who may each bring two kids) is hardly recreational. Inmates wake at 6 a.m. and go through a regimen of parenting classes, drug-therapy sessions and vocational training six days a week, while their children—ranging from newborns up to 6-year-olds—attend regular public schools or daycare run with the help of inmates. For the moms, all the classes and therapy are mandatory, and anyone caught with drugs or alcohol is booted back into the regular system. During the evenings, the sounds of kids at play and the TV fill the halls.

Although still new, the program seems to be working. According to corrections department statistics, former inmates are roughly three times more likely to stay out of trouble than female ex-cons from other prisons. "At the end," says Shay Bilchik, president of the Child Welfare League of America and a supporter of the program, "we get a mother who has bonded with her child and gotten the benefit of drug treatment. That's very powerful."

It's also controversial. For some critics, a program like Family Foundations (with two facilities currently operating and another on the way) defeats the whole purpose of locking up criminals. "There should be punishment in a prison," says Lew Cox, executive director of Violent Crime Victim Services in Tacoma, Wash., whose daughter was murdered in 1987. As for the inmates' kids, says Cox, they should be put in foster care for their own good.

Yet Faith Sepulveda has no doubts the prison is helping turn her life around—even if she has a long way to go. Hooked on methamphetamine since the age of 12, she put up one son for adoption and lost another when she split with the boy's father over her continuing drug use. After her second arrest last year, she accepted a three-year term at Family Foundations instead of a two-year sentence in a regular prison. Now, as she watches her son play with the other kids and sees him flourish at school, her biggest fear is letting him down. "I feel so bad when I raise my voice, but sometimes I get frustrated," she says. "I don't know how to be a good role model sometimes, but I've learned I can't discount his feelings. I guess I'm learning how to love him."

BOB MEADOWS
Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Santa Fe Springs

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