For Cheryl Camyn, the miracle of her life is seeing the soft smile of her newborn child.
“I wouldn’t give her up for nothing,” Camyn said of her brown-eyed daughter, 2-month-old Latasha Battles. “I call her my miracle baby. She saved my life.”
Three weeks ago, Camyn became the first inmate in Washington to maintain custody of her child while incarcerated in a state facility.
Camyn was almost forced to give her up. While pregnant, she was convicted of vehicular assault last June and given a 12-month sentence in the Lincoln County Jail. She would have lost custody of Latasha if she had been born there.
Camyn was transferred to a drug treatment facility shortly after her conviction. She caused problems there and faced a possible return to jail.
Instead, she was allowed to move March 4 with her newborn to the Department of Corrections’ Eleanor Chase House at Seventh and Stevens.
The Chase House is home to the department’s new Residential Parenting Program. Camyn is the only person currently in the program.
“Under the circumstances, this is the best the community can do,” said Community Corrections Officer Pat South. “This is a lucky baby.”
Camyn is there after an alcohol and cocaine binge last June sent her driving in the wrong direction down Interstate 90 near Ritzville.
With a blood alcohol level of 0.27, she was involved in a wreck that injured several people. Camyn nearly died and almost lost her unborn child.
“I don’t even know where Davenport or Ritzville is,” Camyn said. “I don’t remember it.
“I know God gave me a second chance.”
The Chase House program is touted by officials as a way to keep families together and children out of foster care while women are incarcerated.
About 6 percent of female in mates in the United States give birth while incarcerated, according to the Washington Department of Corrections.
Washington inmates are allowed two hours with a newborn before the child is taken away. Depending on where a woman is incarcerated, she is allowed limited visits with her children.
“We have seen what happens when mothers and babies are not bonded,” said Darlene Compton, supervisor at Chase House. “There are processes that don’t take place within the child’s development. They are angry, unsettled, more likely to commit crimes themselves.
“Women need to be with their children. It’s better for everyone.”
Chase House, a place where inmates learn how to live outside prison, takes in women from state prisons serving the last six months of their term and inmates from county jails for up to one year. There is room for 55 women. Thirty-eight beds are currently full.
Chase House opened in 1993 in an effort to separate women from men at the then co-ed Cornelius House on West Mallon, which closed last year.
The plan was to give women a place where they could serve their prison sentence, get treatment and raise their children.
Concerns about liability, community perception and the safety of children squashed that plan until this year, Compton said.
Program director Pam Aden said a shift in state and local attitudes about child welfare, as well as more national emphasis on allowing inmates to raise their children in similar half-way houses, has allowed the program to begin.
Camyn believes that it gives her a chance to really raise Latasha. Her parents are raising her 9- and 15-year-old daughters.
Last June, Camyn was celebrating two years of being drug- and alcohol-free when the simple temptation of beer in the refrigerator turned into a daily alcohol and cocaine habit.
“I hawked everything I had, lost my house, my car, my kids’ respect,” she said. “Now I have to get it all back.”
The privately run Isabella House in Spokane seemed the pregnant woman’s best option after she was convicted of vehicular assault. Nearly three months ago, Camyn gave birth to Latasha there.
The Isabella House is a private drug treatment center for women inmates with alcohol and drug addictions. Camyn is an alcoholic and cocaine addict.
Camyn said she hated living there, and problems between her and staff forced her out early this month.
But she still had a sentence to serve and state facilities didn’t take children - until now.
“They told me you’re either going to Eleanor Chase or Davenport … and they sent my baby with my mom,” Camyn said. “It was the most horrible thing.”
She went to Chase House without Latasha, not knowing if her daughter would be returned. The hours passed like it was an eternity.
A hearing was held and her daughter was returned permanently. They will stay at the Chase House until her sentence is complete, sometime later this year.
“She’s my life,” Camyn said. “If she wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be either.”