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Rutherford County lets jailed moms spend time with kids

May 19, 2019
In this March 26, 2019 photo, Candy Donnell talks about a newly created program for incarcerated moms at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The program allows weekly in-person visits for mothers to spend time with their children and learn life skills and appropriate techniques to parent while incarcerated. (Brinley Hineman/The Daily News Journal via AP)

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — Jail can be harsh, a place with slamming steel doors and tensions running high. But once a week for 45 minutes, that rigor is replaced by children’s laughter.

Through a new parenting class offered at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center, inmate Candy Donnell spends time with her three children weekly. Donnell’s been behind bars for the last two years on a drug charge.

It’s been hard to parent from the jail on New Salem Highway, she said, but since the program was implemented in January, she’s been actively involved in her children’s lives.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Donnell said. “It’s hard being away from your family. ... My heart is just filled with gratitude.”

According to a 2018 report by the Minnesota-based National Council on Family Relations, about 5 million children have experienced the incarceration of a parent.

In Tennessee, that’s about 10% of children and teens, or 144,000 youth, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 study. The same report found Tennessee was one of six states with the third highest prevalence rate for incarcerated parents.

Through the class — offered in conjunction with the Family Center, a Murfreesboro-based program — Donnell was able to celebrate her daughter’s birthday with her for the first time since she’s been incarcerated.

“She does parent from jail, which I know sounds crazy,” Deputy Jill Miles said, who handles the jail programs.

Donnell is one of four incarcerated moms participating in the course. With guidance from coaches, mothers spend time with their children. The coaches touch base with the kids’ guardians weekly to see how the program impacts them.

Children of incarcerated mothers are an extraordinarily high-risk group, the NCFR report said, adding that interventions to help such children “are likely to yield substantial benefits.”

The goal is to cultivate family relationships — to show children that their moms are still “Mom,” said director Trina Winters.

Although the program is only available for incarcerated mothers, the jail has plans to expand it to fathers, too, Lt. Richard Grissom said.

Donnell chokes back tears when she begins to express the gratitude she feels for the opportunity to see her kids in person and embrace them. Although she can see them through video chat visitations, in-person contact was practically non-existent before this program, save for annual holiday celebrations hosted by RCADC.

These sort of courses are important for everyone — both deputies and inmates, Deputy Chief Chris Fly said. It shows deputies a different side of inmates and vice versa.

“We’ve had some (inmates) hold their baby for the first time,” said Fly, who runs the jail.

It’s a different style of correction, and one badly needed.

“There’s been a paradigm shift here,” Sgt. David Hutsell said. “Now we’re living up to the word corrections.”

Hutsell, who has more than two decades of experience in law enforcement, has worked at the county jail for 16 years.

“It was not built for the offender,” he said of the jail’s past. “It was built to contain the offender.”

But that’s changing, the deputies said. Once recognized as the toughest, “no frills” jails in the state, it has softened its grip a bit.

“I can’t stress enough how much we love the opportunity we’ve got here,” Winters said.

A mother of three, Donnell is a different person than when she was arrested. Back then, she was eaten away with addiction, unable to shake its hold on her. She bounced from rehab to rehab before she landed in jail.

During her incarceration, Donnell has been able to get back on her feet. She’s taken every class offered at the RCADC. She’s a cleaning trustee, so she roams the jail as a custodian rather than spending her days in a cell.

She’s even made some unlikely friends behind bars — the deputies.

“I always tell people, ‘This is your resource right here,’” Donnell said of the staff. “There’s a bigger world out there, and there’s people who care.”

Donnell said her jailers have helped her the most. They encourage her personal growth and help her meet goals.

“Everybody in this jail isn’t staying here forever,” Hutsell said. “If we build confidence, they’ll go out there with that confidence.”

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Information from: The Daily News Journal, http://www.dnj.com

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