By Erin Wooddell and Megan Bowers
Hillsboro, W.Va.—Wednesday is class day. Everyone is awake and gathered in the lobby of the Greenbrier Birthing Center, where two toddler boys are squealing and playing on a pile of boxes. Their mothers, dressed in sweats, watch with smiles while three little girls dressed in pink sit in their high chairs looking annoyed.
One inmate starts to fix a girl’s hair.
“Why don’t you do this with it?” she asks, as she scoops the toddler’s hair up and tries to fasten it with a pink bow.
The mother groans, “She’s having an awful hair day.”
These women are federal inmates, incarcerated at a Federal Bureau of Prison’s birthing center. The center gives them time to nurture their children and learn to be mothers.
The Greenbrier Birthing Center was founded by James Clowser in 1994 as a part of the Federal Bureau of Prison’s national MINT program. MINT, which stands for Mothers and Infants Nurturing Together, was created to provide community settings for pregnant federal inmates who wish to keep their babies.
The center provides the opportunity to give birth outside of prison with the option of staying to bond with the child. Most MINT programs allow the inmates to stay anywhere from three to six months, but the Greenbrier Birthing Center lets the girls stay up to 18 months.
“We can’t give them what they need in three months to be successful,” said Martha Barnett, director of the Greenbrier Birthing Center.
The center houses 20 girls and 20 babies and is meant for inmates that present a low-risk of escape.
The chosen inmates tend to come from regional jails with a federal charge and the charges range in offense and time, Barnett said. Common sentences include conspiracy to distribute drugs, drug trafficking, money laundering and fraud.
Pregnant federal inmates can join the MINT program by being sentenced to the birthing center instead of prison, making their attendance mandatory.
“I didn’t want to come here,” said one inmate, who was sentenced to the center after being charged with possession and intent to distribute cocaine. (For security reasons, the birthing center asked that no inmates’ names be used.) “But it gives [us] a second chance and it’s not a long program.”
Women can also be evaluated for the program if they want to keep their child and present a low risk for violence or escape. These women are institutional transfers from regional federal prisons.
Two pregnant inmates served time for separate conspiracy charges at Alderson in West Virginia before transferring to the Greenbrier Birthing Center together. The other inmates’ hospitality surprised them.
“The girls, they took us in… We got settled in pretty quickly and we’re all pretty close,” the 20-year-old said.
Although the Greenbrier Birthing Center is in West Virginia, most participants come from all over the United States and occasionally from overseas, including Cuba, Canada, England and Mexico, Barnett said.
“I’ve met a lot of women I never thought would be in prison,” said one West Virginia inmate who was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. “But I never in a million years thought I’d be here either.”
Barnett prefers to get new inmates two weeks before they give birth. This enables them to acclimate to the staff and center before the baby arrives.
At the time of a recent interview, one inmate still had a month before her baby was due.
“It’s going to be a boy,” she said. “I’m really excited. Kind of nervous. I’m ready though.“
When the inmates are finished with their 18 months at the center, they can return home on a full-term release, move to a halfway house, or go back to prison if they have a remaining sentence to serve.
If the inmate isn’t going to be released after leaving the birthing center, the child goes home with a family member, friend or to a state service.
It is important that families are supportive and involved with the inmates, Barnett said.
After being incarcerated, one inmate realized that she could count only on her family.
“My mom is trying to help me get my life together,” she said. “She told me that the first time she starts seeing signs of me partying, she is going for custody. And I have that hanging over my head… It’s going to be a big change, but a change for good.”
Barnett encourages family visits, and many families are able to visit regularly. But for girls who aren’t from the area, family visits may be more difficult and less frequent.
“A lot of the girls get scared,” said Jamie Vaughn, the counselor Aid and fitness instructor at the center. “Mostly because it’s their first baby and they’re alone, without their family.”
When families can’t come to visit, the community steps in.
“We have overwhelming community support, not only locally but nationwide” Barnett said.
The Greenbrier Birthing Center is the mission project for the local Huntersville First Baptist Church, led by Pastor Jerry Moore. The church members call to check on the inmates, hold fellowships and make donations to the center.