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For incarcerated mothers, parenting is a day-to-day struggle

Jessica Inholt, 28, was arrested in August 2014 and charged with conspiracy to commit dealing heroin. She had wrestled with addiction for years, but had never been to prison before. After her family bailed her out of jail in Anderson, Indiana, she kept her fingers crossed she’d avoid prison time.

But a judge ordered Inholt, then pregnant, to serve 10 years of a 20-year prison sentence at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women and girls in the U.S. increased by 700 percent. Today, around 200,000 women are locked up in our nation’s prisons and jails. The majority of them are mothers. And an estimated 5 percent of women in state prisons and 6 percent of women in jails arrive in custody pregnant.

The Indiana Women’s Prison has one of only eight prison nurseries in the nation. If she qualifies and her sentence is less than 30 months, a pregnant woman can keep her baby with her in prison after birth. But Inholt’s sentence was too long.

In September 2015, Inholt gave birth to her son, Tripp. She was shackled to the bed immediately before and after delivery. And then, just 24 hours after having Tripp, he was taken away.

“The nurses and doctors there made it very, very nice and comforting,” Inholt recalled. “But when I was getting ready to leave, when I had gotten in the wheelchair and they cuff you and they put you in the wheelchair and everything, my son started crying. So then it was kind of very hard. Like, it makes you wonder, is he crying for me? You know, does he know I’m leaving? So that was very tough.”

Tripp is now two and a half years old and is being raised by his grandparents. He lives with his father’s parents, Charity and Doug Perkins, in Pendleton, Indiana, about an hour’s drive from the prison. The Perkins have four older children, including two teenagers, who live at home, and Tripp’s father, Tanner, who has also spent time in jail on drug-related charges.

Tanner, 25, said Tripp brought joy and purpose to his life since he was born two years ago. “I was living wild a little bit,” said Tanner. “And you know when I had my son, the light switch went off in my head.”

Charity does the bookkeeping for the family’s car wash business and also looks after Tripp during most days. She said juggling it all, plus the demands of her other, older children, has been tough. Raising Tripp is a family affair — her sisters and daughters all pitch in. And Inholt’s mother Jenean, who lives about 10 minutes down the road, also helps care for him. She has a full-time job at a local hospital but tries to take Tripp as much as she can during the week.

Every Saturday, Jenean picks Tripp up and drives him to the prison for two-hour visits with his mother. She’s been doing it every weekend since he was born. “I think it’s very important for Tripp to see his mom every week,” Jenean said. “There’s a son-mother bonding relationship like no other.”

Jessica Inholt takes part in the prison’s Family Preservation Program, which allows her to have frequent visits with Tripp. The prison has a large playroom in the church basement where the kids can run free. There is play equipment, books, toys and a place for the moms to prepare snacks for their kids. During her visits, Jessica said she gets to basically just be a mom — playing with Tripp, changing his diapers and keeping him from hurting himself.

Angela Tomlin, a psychologist and childhood development expert at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said frequent visits between a child and an incarcerated mother are necessary to maintain the important bond between them.

The type of room the visits take place in matters, too. Prison visiting rooms where children aren’t allowed to touch their parents, or might be separated from them by glass, could be problematic. “We want the parent to be able to be in a natural relationship with their child during the visit,” Tomlin said. “It’s very unnatural for a young child to not have close physical contact to their caregiver … And if they’re in a situation where they can’t hold them, touch them, brush their hair, do whatever they want to do that promotes connection, then it’s going to feel very unusual and odd to the child.”

Inholt has completed a rehabilitation program in prison and also participates in a special program training assistance dogs. After her release, she plans to get a good job, save up money for a place to live, and ease into a full-time role as a mother.

“I just really want him to understand that I’m his mom and that I do love him,” she said. “I’m a totally different person than I was before I came here. I’m just ready to get out and be a mom, and be a mom to him.”