It`s easy to look at Jeremiah Sosa’s short life and conclude that he never had a chance. After all, he was born to two parents who are in prison. His mother, Georgina Alaniz, 25, gave birth while serving a sentence for robbery, forgery and escape. After holding her newborn son for a couple of hours, she was forced to relinquish him, entrusting him to her sister, Andromeda Sosa.
But her sister, it seems, wasn’t prepared for the responsibility of caring for an infant. In February, Andromeda called 911 to report that the baby, then 10 months old, had drowned in the bathtub, where she’d left him when she’d answered the phone. Police later arrested Andromeda, who was charged on April 8 with child abuse resulting in death and possession of a schedule II controlled substance.
For most who read about little Jeremiah’s tragic and needless death, anger comes first, along with judgment.
“What do you expect when women in prison have babies?” “The baby should have been taken from his mom and placed in foster care so he could be raised by fit parents.”
“Some people shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce.”
The anger and the rush to judgment are understandable, particularly in a society like ours that tends to view those in prison as failed human beings. And there’s no doubt that Jeremiah’s mother is no one’s idea of the ideal mother. Robbery, forgery, escape — those aren’t small crimes.
But writing Jeremiah off as doomed is taking the easy way out. It’s lazy and cynical. Far more challenging and worthwhile is searching for ways to make our criminal justice system better. And the first step is understanding how the system works in Colorado.
Women who give birth while incarcerated are given a few hours to hold their babies, and then the babies are taken away from them — an experience that every incarcerated mother I’ve spoken with over more than a decade of covering women in prison has described as traumatic.
These women have few choices.
They can give their babies up to the system, which often means losing their parental rights forever. They can hand their babies over for relatives to raise, as Georgina Alaniz did. But this often isn’t an ideal solution either, as many women in prison come from dysfunctional families. Or they can enroll in the New Horizons program.
New Horizons, operated by Mennonites, provides loving homes to the children of women in prison. The babies are raised as part of the family, but rather than seeking permanent custody, Mennonite foster parents do all they can to facilitate bonding between mother and child, bringing the children to prison each week to visit their mothers, sending photos of the babies to their mothers and helping the mothers learn parenting and job skills on their release from prison.
Clearly, New Horizons is a special program, one that has justly earned praise from mothers, prison staff and the community alike. However, New Horizons doesn’t work for everyone; not every expectant inmate can enroll.
But other states have started exploring an option that at least at first seems shocking: sending newborns back to prison with their mothers.
Nebraska, Washington and New York have pioneered programs that allow babies to room with their mothers in special, supervised prison wards where mentors work with mothers to teach them parenting skills and help them bond with their babies.
Joanie Shoemaker, deputy director of corrections with the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC), says that the addition of infants to the prison environment transforms not only the mothers, who find a powerful incentive for improving themselves in their babies’ smiles, but benefits other inmates as well.
“What other states talk about is the benefits to the whole population,” Shoemaker told me in an interview earlier this year. “Because they’re women and women tend to be caregivers, there is interest in helping mold these young babies. The whole culture of the facility in some ways changes because they act different around the kids. They want to be presenting that positive image. There are a lot of benefits to it. Obviously, there are great dynamics between the baby and the mother and what that might do long-term, where you can have them in a controlled environment and do parenting and [behavior] modeling and those kinds of things.”
In other words, learning to care for a helpless baby brings out the best in inmates, motivating them to get their act together and speeding, or at least supporting, their rehabilitation.
In Colorado, Denver Women’s Correctional Facility has a few apartments in the prison complex that are set aside for women to have overnight visits with older children. The program is offered as an incentive to women, enabling them to re-connect with older children if they’re in compliance with prison rules and their own goals.
But there’s no program that lets women bond with their newborns in a safe, supervised environment. Shoemaker says it’s something DOC has discussed, but no action has been taken.
That needs to change. We’ll never know whether Jeremiah Sosa would still be alive if such a program had been in place, but we do know that both babies and mothers would benefit greatly from rooming in. To delay creating this program is to deny mothers and children a chance at a better life — together.