Yesterday, I returned to the prison nursery for the first time in two and a half years. I needed the break, having been a regular volunteer there from 2003-2012, even serving on committees and focus groups, and attending distant workshops. This time around, I promised myself just to enjoy the photography, the moms, and their sweet offspring. Part of the deal is to serve as a witness to the struggles and growth of incarcerated mothers raising their babies in a difficult situation.
Not much seems to have changed since my last time there in 2012. But, the outside grassy areas are now abundantly cultivated into useful gardens, giving a sense of real purpose to the work done by some of the inmates. The plantings, including colorful flowers, liven up the dreary blue-grey barracks that serve to house several hundred minimum-security offenders. Otherwise, the sign on the entryway to the J Unit where the prison nursery is housed remains unchanged with the one misplaced adjective in an otherwise list of five nouns seeking to inspire those who cross the threshold: Reliable, Respect, Trust, Integrity, Honesty, Loyalty.
Probably the most poignant thing that happened yesterday was an unexpected encounter with an inmate that I knew from 2008. We both took a second look and drew closer together in surprise. Autumn had the same wide, warm smile that I remembered. One of her jobs was as a caregiver for some of the babies and toddlers. Autumn told me she is getting out on work release in August. Then she said, “I wish I could give you a big hug!” I smiled back, “Me too.” It brought back the memory of something she said in seven years ago that I wrote down: “And in prison, we don’t get to love. We don’t get to hug. We don’t get to love. But with the babies, we have this infant that has no mean intentions towards you at all… ever. Doesn’t even know what being mean means. And they love you and it’s unconditional.”
As we parted company - she going off to a job and me going off to photograph moms - Autumn and I exchanged a warm nod, “Well, consider yourself hugged, ok?” It is so hard to imagine spending years in confinement where human touch is not allowed. I think I would wither up.