Hard Time Gets Harder

Oregon is cutting an effective program to help mothers in prison stay close to their kids.

2008, Eva Guzman arrived at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, to begin a sentence for robbery. Eleven days later, she gave birth.

"I had my daughter," says Guzman, now 33. "And then she was gone."

Guzman was already the mother of two children, 3 and 6. In that way, she was not unique; two-thirds of female prisoners in the United States are mothers, according to the Women's Prison Association in New York. 

But Guzman's story behind bars has an unusual ending. When Oregon prison officials released her in August 2013, she had developed stronger bonds with her children, thanks to an intensive rehabilitation program at Coffee Creek, called the Family Preservation Project. 

The 4-year-old program encourages and helps women to stay in touch with their children, engage in their lives even while in prison, and learn parenting skills many of the women lack.

"If I didn't have the program, I wouldn't be where I am today," says Guzman, who now works as a technician at a residential treatment center in Seaside.

A study published in June by Portland Community College called the Family Preservation Project "a laudable and effective approach" and called on the state to keep the program going.

Now prison officials are cutting the program.

Kim Brockamp, assistant director of the offender management and rehabilitation unit at the Oregon Department of Corrections, says the state agency faces a $37 million shortfall in its current budget, and the program is too expensive for the number of prisoners it serves.

Advocates for the program say the decision to cut it is shortsighted; it should be expanded rather than axed.

"Women need to keep their bonds with their kids," says Jammie Sherriff, a 2011 graduate of the program. "I wish the program could be open to more women."

At first blush, the program looks pricey: $300,000 a year for 2½ staff positions, supplies and other expenses. It currently serves just 11 women, 17 children and 22 caregivers—often family members looking after the inmates' children. The program has graduated another 23 women, none of whom have returned to prison.

Compared with the Corrections Department's total two-year budget, however—$1.4 billion and 4,500 employees—the program is tiny.

Still,  Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters asked her agency to cut spending. The program was one of the most expensive per inmate. "It's just not good fiduciary responsibility to continue this program," Brockamp says.

State Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) says Corrections is cutting the program without offering any alternatives. She's meeting with prison officials next week to find a possible solution. 

“Right now, it’s this or nothing, and nothing is unacceptable,” Williamson says. 

The Family Preservation Project grew out of an Oregon Department of Education program started at Coffee Creek in 2003. Corrections later took it over.

Guzman was arrested at age 27 for a crime she committed at 16. Police said she had served as a lookout during a robbery that resulted in a 37-year-old man's death. 

Some aspects of the program—the workshops, the parenting classes, the group sessions—almost turned her off. Guzman says she was "a really hard case" because she lacked coping mechanisms, and she recalls she nearly quit. 

"'I'm done with this thing,'" she says she told the group during a particularly tough session. "I walked down the hall, and I was crying. I looked back, and I saw they were all smiling. I said, 'Can I come back in?'"

The program allowed Guzman regular visits with her kids, kept her in contact with their teachers by phone, and helped ease the stress on her children's caregivers. That's what drew Guzman to the program—the promise of relationships with her children. 

"I just wanted to see my kids," she says.

Documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, who directed Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse, has been filming the Family Preservation Project since April for a film tentatively titled Mothering Inside. He says the project helps women understand how they came to be in prison, and how to break the cycles of poverty, addiction and incarceration that could ensnare their children.

"This program is deep and it transforms the lives of not only the women but their families," Lindstrom says. "I truly believe that if this program were expanded, it would significantly reduce recidivism, and shouldn't that be the goal?"

Emma Moore-Montgomery, 31, went to prison in 2007 for criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence, crashing the car she was driving and killing her passenger, the father of her 3-year-old son. She was released three years ago after serving nearly a four-year sentence.

The Family Preservation Project helped Moore-Montgomery maintain a relationship with her son and work through the pain she had caused the mother of the man she killed.

"Coming home would have been hard, because [my son] wouldn't have had even a partial mother figure," Moore-Montgomery says. "That program helped us still be mothers as much as we could.” 

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