Paige Zorn plays with her boy Zaylin on the floor in the playroom of J-Unit at the Corrections Center on Thursday, July 6, 2023. To qualify for the program, individuals must be pregnant upon entering the facility, in minimum custody and have committed neither violent crimes nor crimes against children. Their sentence must be less than 30 months from the due date. Zorn had Zaylin in early March, and she was set to be released in the fall. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)
It could be a scene with any young mother in America working out the big moments of her future. But Zorn’s classroom, the day care – and much of her world on this day – dwells behind the layered fencing and razor wire of the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.
Raised in Wyoming coal country in a town of 1,800 on the edge of a national grasslands, Zorn described herself as being outgoing and good at math as a youth. But she fell into drugs through people she met there before coming to Washington five years ago. By the time she wound up in prison, Zorn describes being on the streets around Tacoma living what she called the drug life, which led to charges that included robbery in the second degree.
Those old layers of anxiety and uncertainty creep into her voice as Zorn shares her story with a reporter and photographer from Crosscut in interviews between May and October. When she’s released, Zorn worries about people from the drug life who are still trying to contact her.
She’ll also need to find stable work, and hopes the pre-apprenticeship certificate she’s about to earn through a state Department of Corrections program will help with that. But mostly Zorn fears getting sucked back into the drug use that has waylaid her adult life so far.
“I’m more scared of going out and relapsing,” Zorn said. “I have a plan for when I get out to have a sponsor. I have my support group. That’s probably my biggest fear.”
Zorn is one of three mothers this year in Washington’s unique Residential Parenting Program, a Department of Corrections program in which pregnant women coming through the legal system can stay with their babies and get support and help becoming a parent.
For nearly 25 years, the prison – just up the road from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge – has included one of only a handful of prison nurseries in America, and is the only one with a licensed Early Head Start child care center. Since 1999, according to the DOC, more than 800 women have come through the Residential Parenting Program, where mothers can live with their infants to form a healthy attachment and learn skills for raising children.
Washington is battling a yearslong epidemic of drug addiction and related crimes that has blazed a trail of destruction, with more than 2,600 residents dead of opioid overdoses in the past year. That crisis overlaps with the fallout from America’s broader, decadeslong war on drugs, which has disproportionately impacted people of color and made it harder for people with felony convictions to get housing or jobs after paying their debt to society.
The incarceration of women has exploded in recent decades. At the end of 2016 there were 111,616 incarcerated women in America, a 742% increase since 1980, according to a 2019 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Drug and property crimes account for more than half of the offenses of incarcerated women in America, according to a report this year by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Much of the political debates on drugs happen on the front end, like the one in Washington over the past few years about when people should be arrested for drug possession, how severely they should be penalized and how much latitude should be given to law enforcement and prosecutors to arrest, divert or imprison.
People like Zorn – and fellow program mothers Christina Torres and Marie Haller – stand at the back end of the debate.
Washington’s prison parenting program, developed within a patchwork of government policies geared toward helping people reestablish their lives and keep family stability, is one of only a handful of similar programs across the country.
Success here could not only help the women with their lives outside but establish a bond with their babies that will give them a healthy start. It’s a lot of possibility – and responsibility – for these young women to carry. In the meantime, the mothers describe the bonds they’ve formed with each other through ups and downs and the daily grind of living and raising children.
On another day, Zorn puts it like this: “We’re basically like a really close family.”
Marie Haller feeds her newborn Dahlia at the Corrections Center on Thursday, July 6, 2023. Haller said she had previously been to prison and had behavioral issues back then, but had since got her life back on track and was recently married before old charges came up. She was sent back to prison early on in her pregnancy. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)
From the inside
The Residential Parenting Program’s nerve center in the prison’s J-unit is a light-filled community room with toys, couches, a TV for kids’ programs – the 2005 movie Dreamer plays one day, Shark Tale on another – along with a reading shelf packed with Dr. Seuss and other books.
Across a dorm-style hallway is a changing room where children can also be bathed in plastic tubs. There’s a small kitchen for simple meals; the freezer stores breast milk for the babies. Down the hall are the women’s rooms, painted in pastels, each with a crib and a small table and chair along with a bed.
Zorn, Haller, Torres and their babies sit in the living area one day this past spring and share their stories. Haller, a 35-year-old from Clallam County, said she had been in prison before, and had behavioral issues back then. But she had actually weaned off drugs, she said, was working at a coffee stand and had gotten married when she learned that she would have to face more prison time.
“And literally a few days after coming back from my honeymoon, I found out that I wasn't going to be accepted into a drug court program, but in fact had to come back to prison,” Haller said as she sat with her baby, Dahlia, on her lap. “I was pregnant at the time as well, just very early in my pregnancy. So a lot of devastation there, but just had to face the music and come and deal with what I had to deal with.”
To qualify for the program, individuals must be pregnant upon entering the facility, in minimum custody and have committed neither violent crimes nor crimes against children. Their sentence must be less than 30 months from their due date. Once in the program, they must participate in pre-and-postnatal programs, like child development, parenting and family skills, and self-esteem and self-care. Women not accepted into the program may see their baby go to a family member or into foster care.
With the number of pregnant women nationally outstripping the resources of nurseries, the suite of criteria to qualify for prison nursery programs like this may ultimately dampen their usefulness, according to Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. With just three mothers in J-unit this year, there are 17 open slots in the residential parenting program. A prison nursery program in Illinois, which Bertram calls a gold standard, has sat largely unused because of its strict application guidelines, according to a February report by the advocacy organization.
“There’s no reason, with such a small number of women who are eligible in the first place, to exclude people,” said Bertram.
Washington’s program can take incarcerated people from federal prisons, according to Melissa Johnson, spokesperson for the Washington Corrections Center for Women.
Two have applied since the start of last year, but one was given compassionate release and the other was denied due to issues with child protective services, according to Johnson. There is one state-level applicant right now going through the facility’s screening process, she added.
Bertram and Margaret Zhang, visiting assistant professor of law at Rutgers Law School, broadly praised prison nurseries like Washington’s. But they also wonder whether pregnant women and their children should ultimately be behind bars in the first place.
“Often I speak to policymakers just about dollars and cents, where do we get the best bang for our buck,” Zhang said. “And I think, honestly, a lot of the time [that] is the alternatives to incarceration.”
The positive side of prison
One paradox: The act of being imprisoned has given the mothers time with their children during some of their most memorable early milestones.
Christina Torres, 26, a mother of four, was the first mom in the Residential Parenting Program since it reopened after COVID. The 26-year-old from Grays Harbor County, who worked outside preparing taxes, came inside at six weeks pregnant. Now she cares for Janessa, who is nearing her first birthday, while taking business classes. But standing outside near J-unit one day, she describes the difference between Janessa’s early years and those of her other three children.
“I always worked,” she said one day in August. “Towards the end, I actually had two jobs. So like, I wasn’t able to actually see, you know, like, my son walking, or his first tooth or, you know, stuff like that.”
“All those milestones. I’m actually, like, seeing all that,” she said. “So it’s, like, that’s a good thing … my bond with her is stronger than my other ones at home, you know? And it’s hard to say, but like, that’s how it is.”
An analysis of data from 2016-2017 showed that about 4% of women entering prisons annually in the U.S. were pregnant, according to Advocacy and Research on Reproductive Health of Incarcerated People, a program of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The separation of a parent and child due to a prison sentence is considered an “adverse childhood experience,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such experiences can lead to lasting negative health effects into adulthood and hurt efforts to get education and jobs, and could even lead to chronic diseases.
The time inside with their babies represents a duality of busyness versus waiting and reflection. Their days are full, with Zorn in the apprenticeship program and Haller and Torres taking college business classes. Zorn and Haller work as janitors. All three have spent time in a running club, where the women gather in their gray sweats to jog loops around the opens campus at the center of the prison buildings.
On a quiet afternoon, the women also reflect on what they’ll tell their children about this time.
Haller keeps two baby books for Dahlia, choosing only the best photos and milestone moments taken from when her husband, Dahlia’s father, visits. Haller wants to be open with Dahlia about this time in their life.
“Nobody sat down with me at any point in my childhood and said, ‘Hey, addiction runs in your family, if you start doing something like that, you're going to have a hard time stopping,’” Haller said. “And I wish they would have, because I think even if I didn't listen, it would have been in my mind, and it would have been in the back of my mind when I would have made those choices."
Such conversations can be fruitful, said Minerva Francis of the New York-based Partnership to End Addiction.
“To recognize and grapple with the past to understand one’s impact and trajectory is helpful to talk about in a non-judgmental way and in a way that adds information,” said Francis, a postdoctoral fellow in addiction research and evaluation with the nonprofit organization. “Because such conversations to be had, tends to delay the onset of risky behaviors, such as drinking and substance abuse.”
Hard truths on the outside
On a day in late August, Zorn sits in a drab classroom in another wing of the prison watching videos about workers and processes in a manufacturing plant.
The pre-apprenticeship program is offered through AJAC, a nonprofit founded to increase skills for careers in manufacturing. Graduates of the program can go on to work in aerospace, food processing and other industries.
While the video plays, Troy Ironmonger, the pre-apprenticeship program manager, stands out in the hallway and describes Zorn as “not afraid to sit right up front and be engaged.”
“Smart as a whip, you know? They do some algebra, geometry and some light trigonometry in this class, and she’s definitely mathematically inclined,” he said, describing Zorn as “a really great student.”
But being smart is not necessarily enough after time in prison. For a convicted felon, getting a job and getting stable housing are two of the biggest challenges, according to state Rep. Tarra Simmons, D-Bremerton. And those aren’t the only ones.
Simmons knows this through experience: Earlier in her life she was sentenced to 30 months for drug possession and delivery. After getting out and graduating from Seattle University School of Law, the Washington State Bar Association rejected her attempt to take the bar exam, a requirement for practicing law. The Washington Supreme Court overruled the bar’s decision; Simmons has since been elected to the Legislature and is a co-founder of a nonprofit that seeks to help people getting out of prison.
Traumas and mental health issues can also hinder someone trying to be back out in the world: “We don’t know how to handle stress and anxiety.”
“We have served our time and are forgiven, and that’s not necessarily true,” said Simmons, who vice-chairs a House legislative committee that oversees prisons and public safety issues.
Efforts to help incarcerated people adapt to come back into society have some support across the political aisle. Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, the ranking Republican on that committee, said she is working on legislation to improve prison environments for those inside. And she supports the parenting program.
“Anytime we can have a mother and child together, that’s a win for both mother and child and for the community and the state of Washington,” said Mosbrucker.
On Sept. 21, Zorn woke early to say goodbye to Torres and Haller – and Janessa and Dahlia. She picked out some street clothes to exchange for her gray sweats and tees, and after some waiting and processing walked out to meet her father in the prison parking lot.
In an interview in October at a Pierce County library, Zorn described Zaylin’s discoveries in his new world. He doesn’t like the grass yet, and riding in a car was also an adjustment – lots of screaming involved. But he is a fan of Zorn’s cellphone.
“If I’m on video chat with my mom and my sister, I could set the phone all the way across the room and he’ll army-crawl as fast as he can to get there. … It’s so cute,” she said, adding “Like if it’s new, he wants it. A remote, doesn’t matter. If he hasn’t seen it, [he’s] gotta taste it. He wants it.”
Zorn has much ahead of her, and not all of it will be easy.
With a housing voucher to pay for six months’ rent, she and Zaylin settled into a specialized group home in Pierce County.
She’s working on building new friendships – unlike those with her friends back in the drug-using days, she said. She needs to find a job through the apprenticeship program, but also a day care close enough and with the right hours for her to drop Zaylin off.
Zorn said she’s already attending five meetings a week in the evenings, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. After months of anxiety about her future, she’s starting to feel optimism.
“I thought it was gonna be a lot harder when I got out to stay away from the people and the drugs and the places. And it’s not,” she said. “I have the support I need.”
The residential parenting program gave her the hand-holds in her life to get to this point.
“They prepared me and just helped me build a bond and definitely gave me a reason to stay clean,” she said as Zaylin crawled across the kids’ section in the library. “And it was the best thing we could have done.”
“It saved my life,” Zorn added. “For sure.”