Serving time for pattern of transgressions, 22-year-old longs for healthy child
This is not how Cristina Salazar imagined starting a family: unmarried at age 22, nine months pregnant and sitting in jail.
Dressed in orange pants, shirt and flip flops – standard issue at the Kootenai County Jail – Salazar stands against a wall waiting for lunch inside K-pod. The dormitory holds up to two dozen women.
The other inmates let her go to the front of the line. The meal is two salami sandwiches, a banana and orange juice concentrate to which the women add water. Because she’s pregnant, Salazar also gets milk.
“It’s rough. I feel all big and huge,” she said in late February. “It’s not the best but, I mean, I just gotta tough it out. I imagine it wouldn’t be much more comfortable being out there, being this big.”
‘This is jail’
A pattern of drug use and parole violations led Salazar back to jail in mid-January. It’s clear she likely will be behind bars more than half of the year, though she’ll get a short break to deliver her daughter at the same hospital where Salazar was born in the winter of 1992.
Pregnant inmates receive a few accommodations. Salazar got an extra mattress and blanket. She takes prenatal vitamins and has a little snack at bedtime. When she vists her obstetrician she is shackled at the waist and ankles for the trip. She doesn’t have access to products like maternity lotion.
“That’s just luxury stuff that we wouldn’t get in here,” she said. “I mean, this is jail.”
On average, about 70 women are in county lockup in Coeur d’Alene. A few each year may be pregnant during their sentence. It’s rare for a woman to reach her due date while in custody, the sheriff’s office said.
Salazar will be released on her own recognizance to have her baby. The county won’t be on the hook for her hospital bill. She’s on Medicaid.
A jail chaplain will drive her to the hospital when she’s in labor. By court order she must return to jail after she is discharged. She won’t have physical contact with her daughter again for several months, maybe longer. Elvia, her mother, will care for the infant.
“It’s going to be hard leaving her, you know, and not being able to take care of her during her first years or months,” Salazar had said earlier. “I don’t want her to grow up and have issues.”
Drugs derailed a college plan
Salazar’s parents divorced when she was young. She lived with her mom and sister Melina, who’s 11 years younger.
“That was really hard on me, not having a father there,” she said. She wants her baby’s father to be in the girl’s life.
Salazar attended Lake City High School and graduated in 2010 from Kootenai Bridge Academy, a charter school for at-risk teens, with a 3.35 grade-point average. The following winter she enrolled at North Idaho College and attended classes for a year.
“I got really interested in the arts,” she said. “I really enjoy painting and pottery. I’ve always kind of been into that stuff, though. I just never, I guess, really pursued it.”
She also worked at a couple of restaurants and at a gluten-free bakery.
And she took drugs: oxycodone, mostly, but also morphine, cocaine and methamphetamine. After a 2011 arrest for possession of OxyContin pills, Salazar landed in jail repeatedly for a series of parole violations. Despite court-ordered treatment, she wasn’t able to stay away from drugs.
“You have pushed the patience of this court to its limit,” 1st District Judge Rich Christensen warned her a year ago. He gave Salazar another chance and ordered her to report to 24/7, a faith-based recovery program run by Anthem Friends Church. Several churches run recovery programs in Kootenai County.
While in the program Salazar reunited with her boyfriend – a violation of her parole. Kenneth “Zeke” McCulloch is two years older than her, with a longer rap sheet: drug possession, driving under the influence, probation violations, theft. When he got out of jail last June, she was waiting for him.
In early July, Salazar learned she was pregnant. She missed a series of required drug tests and failed to show up for some discretionary jail time. In October she tested positive for meth use and was kicked out of 24/7 for repeated rule violations.
Salazar acknowledged she wasn’t serious about completing the program. “I don’t know, I was tired of it,” she said. “I just didn’t want to be there anymore.”
That left her no choice but to return to jail. A bench warrant was issued for her arrest.
Salazar is five days past her due date in February. She sleeps on a bottom bunk in the lower level of the two-story dorm – one of three pods for female inmates.
“I have a horrible back to begin with, and this does not make it any better,” but the extra mattress helps, she says.
Menus are approved by a registered dietitian, with a goal of 2,500 calories per day. Salazar gets fruit and milk before bedtime. “It’s definitely better than nothing,” she says.
There’s little to do but watch TV, nap and talk with the other women incarcerated alongside her.
“I have some really good friends in here,” Salazar says. “They definitely watch out for me and definitely care for me, that’s for sure. And the baby.”
She thinks about where her life is going. Though she didn’t plan to get pregnant, she’s excited to be a mom. She decides to name her daughter Nova. “I don’t know, I like it. I like something unique.”
The baby will go home with her mother, and Salazar’s little sister will help look after her.
“It hurts me, it really does,” she says, thinking about missing the critical bonding time after birth. “But I just gotta change it and just be better for the future. Like I can’t do anything about it now, just change for her.”
McCulloch was sent to a state-run drug recovery program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution in Cottonwood. Salazar hopes he’ll be released by the end of this year. As felons, though, it may be some time before they can be together without violating parole.
Two years ago Salazar got a tattoo on her right hand. It says “Promise” and has an arrow pointing to her pinky.
“It’s like, pinky promise,” she says. “It’s a thing between me and my boyfriend, actually. It means a lot to me because if you’re going to make a promise, you better keep it.”
Questions need for shackles
Unless there’s a medical reason to separate them, pregnant women are in the general population. Deputies check on the welfare of inmates every 30 minutes, and housing units have emergency call buttons.
Salazar has few complaints. She thinks female deputies should accompany women to appointments. It’s uncomfortable having male deputies with her on OB visits, even though they aren’t in the room during the exam, she said.
She also doesn’t like how her feet and hands are shackled every time she goes to court or sees her doctor. “I don’t think that’s right. What if I fell?”
Except in certain medical cases, all inmates are secured when outside the jail to prevent escape or injury. A woman in labor may not be bound, according to jail policy, said Maj. Neal Robertson, commander of the jail bureau for the past three years.
As for female detention deputies, they are scarce, Robertson said. The jail only has one woman on duty at a time, leaving male deputies to handle all transports.
Kootenai County proposes replacing the cramped, 327-bed jail with a privately built, 625-bed one. It would include a 20-bed infirmary with exam rooms, Robertson said. Presently, inmates with medical issues end up being held in the chaotic environment of the booking area.
“If they’re having complications during pregnancy and they had to be on bed rest or something, we’d have to house them in a holding cell in booking,” he said.
Salazar goes into labor on a Sunday night and checks into Kootenai Health early the next morning. The baby shows signs of distress and the doctor performs a C-section. Salazar’s mom is at her side.
Nova is born March 3 at 6:59 a.m. – 9 pounds, 9 ounces and a full head of dark hair.
“I was happy I could hear her cry,” Salazar says. “I was scared, though.”
The baby has difficulty breathing and is placed in the neonatal intensive care unit, then soon is transported to the Level 3 nursery at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. She is fitted with an airway pressure device to help her breathe.
Salazar holds her daughter only briefly. “It was sad, because they were taking her away from me.”
A day later, recovering from surgery, she receives updates on Nova’s condition.
“They said they didn’t want to feed her regular because she’s breathing so hard that she could choke on it,” she says.
Next to her bed is a small bouquet of white roses and pink carnations, and a balloon that says “God loves you.” Her father brought them.
“I just don’t like seeing her sick like that,” says Salazar, her voice heavy with worry. “I just want her to be good, to be healthy.”
‘I messed up’
“You can only imagine for a parent how distressing it is and how difficult it is,” said Ruth Willford, a registered nurse and care manager for Maternal Child Services at Kootenai Health. “And she has all of these other things to deal with in her life.”
Hospital workers met with Salazar before her discharge to tell her about community resources available to help.
“Our goal,” Willford said, “is to make sure that she’s going to have whatever she needs to put herself, hopefully, eventually in a position to parent her child.”
Salazar leaves two days after giving birth but does not head straight back to jail. She goes to Spokane to be with Nova. The little girl is kept at Sacred Heart for 10 days battling a serious lung infection. She improves and is able to go home.
Three weeks after her delivery, Salazar reports back to jail and heads to court to learn her fate.
“This is a wonderful young lady to work with,” Salazar’s public defender, Brad Chapman, tells the judge.
She has admitted to seven probation violations for her conduct last year.
“She is going to be a great mom,” Chapman says. “We would like that to happen sooner rather than later.”
Salazar addresses the judge next. “I take full responsibility for my actions. I messed up,” she says. “I am ready to face the consequences. I want to move forward with my daughter. I want to be the mom she needs.”
Her record is troublesome, Judge Christensen tells her. He doubts she will obey her felony probation terms. He reinforces the sentence but gives Salazar a “rider,” a middle ground between probation and prison. The Idaho Department of Corrections will place her in a minimum-security treatment center. If she’s successful there, the judge may reconsider letting her out on probation.
“The ultimate goal is for you to learn,” he tells her. “It is in your hands.”
Elvia and Melina bring Nova to the county jail for a visit. They are in the lobby, speaking with Salazar over a video-phone system. Nova, 2 months old, naps in a carseat with a fuzzy pink blanket. The family has 30 minutes to talk.
“She’s beautiful,” Salazar says. “I can’t believe how big she is already.”
Nova wakes up. Elvia holds the phone to the baby’s ear so Salazar can speak to her.
Time is almost up. The family says their goodbyes. “OK, I love you. Take care,” Elvia tells her daughter.
Elvia says it has been a challenge looking after Nova, who has colic. She takes the baby to day care while she’s at work.
“It’s been tough, because I don’t have other support,” she says.
Salazar is transferred May 13 to the South Boise Women’s Correctional Center, which is nearly full with about 280 offenders. She’ll spend 90 to 120 days in the intensive treatment program. Elements include “moral recognition therapy, relapse prevention group, helping women recover, responsible mothers.”
She wants to try college again when she returns home. “I think I’m going to pursue the arts,” she says. “That’s what I really enjoy; that’s really a passion of mine.”
And she’s thinking about Nova.
“I want to be 100 percent for my daughter. I want to be there. … I can’t be doing this anymore, ’cause if I continue then she’s not going to know me.”
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