“That was me then, this is me now. I’m ready to be the mother I know I can be.”
With voices nervous but steady, a group of young women take turns sharing their thoughts. How do you feel about moving forward? What do you want to leave behind? Which old relationships do you want to maintain? The women carefully contemplate each question, babies bouncing on their laps. There are occasional tears but more often laughter, smiles, and nods of understanding.
This group therapy session is part of a program for women incarcerated in Texas called the Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative (BAMBI). It’s a place for leaving the past behind, for second chances.
BAMBI, operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), offers pregnant offenders the opportunity to live with their babies after delivery, rather than sending the infants away to family or foster care, which is the norm across the country. Housed in the Santa Maria Hostel, a chemical dependency treatment facility, it feels more like a college dorm than a prison.
BAMBI opened in Santa Maria in 2010 with four women. Today there are over 20. As soon as the women and their newborns are discharged from the UTMB hospital where they give birth, they are taken to Santa Maria. They remain there until their sentences are over—anywhere from a few days to around 15 months.
“Most of these girls didn’t have role models, and they didn’t get the love they needed in those first years,” said Liz Moore, BAMBI program liaison. “Now they have this second chance to do something that is almost innate, but can be robbed from you. They get the opportunity to grow emotionally.”
From the moment the women arrive, Moore and BAMBI Case Manager Joanne Marshall work to help them bond with their babies and set them on the path to a successful, independent future. This includes regular activities like group therapy, one-on-one therapy, parenting classes and GED classes.
“We also set up a plan to figure out what they would like to do with their life,” Marshall said. “I help them get into college and find transitional living if home will not be a safe place for them.”
The idea behind BAMBI is that allowing the mother and child to bond and preparing them for an independent future will make the mother less likely to reoffend. So far, it seems to be working. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed over 75 percent of state prisoners in 30 states, including Texas, were rearrested within five years. In the five years BAMBI has been active, its recidivism rate is just about eight percent.
Danielle, 22, has been at BAMBI for three months with her daughter Journi. She also has one older child, a seven-year-old who is in the foster care system. Before being accepted to BAMBI, she planned to send the baby home to her parents. She learned she would be heading to BAMBI on Mother’s Day.
“This was a second chance,” she said. “When I lost my older daughter, I continued to fall backward. This made me realize I don’t want to go back to that old lifestyle. I want to keep pushing forward, to be the mother and the daughter I’m supposed to be.”
Like many of the women at BAMBI, Danielle has seen a lot of heartache. She spoke of her sister who was murdered by a friend, and the lasting effect that had on her ability to relate to others.
“After that I lost all trust,” she said. “Being here made me realize it’s OK to open up and talk to people. They’re not here to judge me. I’ve learned to be assertive.”
That ability to change thought processes is a key to success for the women at BAMBI. That includes both being able to accept constructive criticism and learning to stand up for themselves.
“We help them to recognize when they have faulty thinking and to be able to own that—to say, ‘Yeah, I shouldn’t have done that and this is why,’” Moore said. “We also want them to understand it’s OK to tell people, ‘You can’t treat me this way.’”
Linda, 28, has been at BAMBI for six months with her daughter, Jerasia. She thanked the program for giving her a new perspective.
“It really made me change my attitude, my way of thinking,” she said. “I like the new me. I’m happy, I smile more, I’m more open-minded.”
Linda will soon be leaving BAMBI for a transitional living program in Dallas. Though her family is in Tyler, a short drive to Dallas, Linda is ready to make it on her own.
“I’m very nervous, but I’m excited. We’ll be living in an apartment, just me and Jerasia,” she said. “I’m going to keep in touch with my family, but visiting? I’m OK. I did it by myself here and I want to go ahead and take the journey by myself.”
As Linda plans for life after BAMBI, Ashley, 30, is at the other end of the spectrum. She and her daughter Kynzlee have been at BAMBI for just two weeks, but Ashley already feels changed.
“I also have a 10-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son,” she said. “I’ve always been able to go to my parents or go to somebody for help, but now I know I don’t have to. With Kynzlee, I can take care of her on my own and be able to do everything. This is helping me strive for a better future for me and all my children.”
As one of the more recent additions to the program, Ashley said she finds inspiration in the women who have been at BAMBI longer. It’s comforting to have people she can relate to, who can give her a glimpse of the future.
“Sometimes when you make the choices and mistakes you make, you feel like you’re the only person doing that,” she said. “I like that I have support and am able to go to someone that has been here for a little while and talk to them and gain knowledge from them.”
Moore said they encourage that type of connection by pairing new BAMBI members with “big sisters” who have been with the program for a while. The women support one another, but they also learn constructive ways to call out negative behavior.
“We have a process where they get to come and say, ‘I didn’t appreciate it when you did this and it made me feel this way,’” said Moore. “It’s not all hugs and kisses and everything is going to be OK, because it won’t be unless you do the work. It can get harder before it gets easier.”
The journey through BAMBI has its ups and downs, and the idea of independence can be scary. With that fear, however, comes the feeling of unlimited potential, often for the very first time.
“I feel more alive. I don’t have so much hatred and bitterness. I have a lot of love,” said Linda, while reflecting on her impending departure. “Before, I could say ‘I love you’, but I didn’t know the meaning of love—when somebody really cares for you and is really trying to help you. I feel different in a lot of ways and I thank BAMBI so much.”