HOUSTON — At the “pregnancy tank” at the Harris County Jail, asking a female inmate “How much longer do you have?” can get a puzzled look in response. She could answer with a due date or an anticipated date of discharge from jail.
The “pregnancy tank” is a two-story, atrium-like room with private cells. It houses 30 inmates chosen for a Mentoring Moms program, a 60-to-90-day course for inmates who are either pregnant or have young children. Through partnerships with 30 nonprofit groups and businesses, the program teaches participants about the help available on the outside that will keep them from returning to jail.
“I’ve learned coping skills — how to deal with my anger, how to deal with many things,” an inmate in the program, Laura Dominguez, 21, said. Pregnant with her second child, Dominguez is serving a sentence for driving while intoxicated and expects to be released a month before her daughter is born.
“I don’t want to be back,” she said. “My kids need me, and jail really isn’t a place to be.”
Courses in the program, which began Nov. 1, teach inmates how to find jobs, beat addiction and be better parents.
“I want to see a show of hands that you’re going to parent different than you were before you got here,” a certified recovery coach, Raunda Lindsey, said during a recent life skills lesson focused on alternative child disciplinary methods. “You take a breath before you raise your hand or your voice,” she said.
Similar support programs for mothers who have served jail sentences begin upon their release. Jennifer Herring, who manages the division of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office that helps inmates transition back into the community, said the program is one of a kind.
“What we have done that’s revolutionary here is to bring the actual program inside the jail, which is transformative in itself because the client is most vulnerable at this point,” she said. Officials at the Harris County Jail, the nation’s third-largest, estimated that it housed 100 pregnant inmates on a given day. Most of those are not in jail long enough to become enrolled in the program, Herring said. Many women often learn they are pregnant only after undergoing a medical assessment more than two weeks after their arrival.
Students at the University of Houston are tracking the women’s progress after their release. Working for academic credit, 30 students a semester measure the program’s effectiveness. To date, 68 women have taken part. Of those, 21 have been discharged. None have returned.
The community partners send in staff members weekly to educate the inmates on turning their lives around.
“They have the funding. They have the services. We have the client. We connect them,” Herring said, one of three paid staff members who oversee Mentoring Moms, the jail’s prostitution rehab program and a forthcoming veterans support initiative.
The inmates themselves help pay the staffers’ salaries through the money they spend at the commissary.
Mentoring Moms is also focused on supporting women who are up to three years postpartum.
Melyssa Olsen, 23, who miscarried days after entering the program, says that after spending most of her adult life behind bars, she has not always been there for her 9-year-old son.
“I’ve never had a chance to raise my son,” Olsen said. “So I have to learn. This program is teaching me.”
The participants are as varied as their rap sheets, but “they all have a desire to want to be with their babies,” Herring said. “So what we do is create a creative, comprehensive holistic program so somewhere in that process they find themselves.”