My name is Kebby Warner, I am a twenty-five-year-old woman prisoner in Michigan. I have been incarcerated since Oct. 17, 1997 for littering and publishing. Passing a $350 stolen check. My time has been one of struggle, heartache, pain, and desperation. Here is my story:
My first month in prison was spent being sick. I was told by health care that my “illness” was caused by stomach flu and that my other “symptoms” were caused by stress. The day after I was released from quarantine, I was called to health care and informed that my “illness” wasn’t stomach flu, but that I was pregnant. Putting the dates together I had conceived my baby the night before I was sentenced to prison. The day I stepped through the razor wire and fence, I was ten days along.
I was at a loss as to what to do. At that time I was twenty-years-old, it was my first time ever being pregnant, and I was sitting in prison. Thoughts went through my mind of abortion, something that I did not believe in for myself, though I am pro-choice. I thought of adoption, but I knew that if I carried my baby to term, I would not be able to let it go. The doctor handed me some pamphlets, sending me back to the cell, giving me two hours to make the decision that I dreaded. I walked back to my unit in a state of disbelief. This could not be happening.
I could not contact my husband that night, so the decision was left up to me. After a night of crying and asking “Why now,” I made the decision to keep my child. I believed that I could count on her father, my husband, to take care of our child until I got out.
I am a Type I Diabetic and must take insulin shots in order to live. Because of the Diabetes I am a “high risk pregnancy.” Michigan Department of Corrections, because of the high-risk status, would not allow health care the responsibility of my prenatal care, I was sent to a hospital in the “free world.” I was grateful for this as I did not want to place the life of my baby in MDOC’s hands. I received the best of care.
After the initial exam, I was told I would have to be seen once a week, and that they would be doing the first ultrasound on the following appointment. I was so excited and could not wait to see the first glimpse at my baby.
By this time I had made contact with my husband, who shared my excitement and who promised to be there for our child. He was the only person I had and thought I could count on.
In order to leave the prison for a “medical” run, you are forced to go through a period of humiliation each time with a MDOC guard. You are strip searched completely upon leaving and returning to the prison. You are placed in belly chains and your hands are cuffed, this you must wear the duration of the doctor visits, unless the doctor requests them to be removed. The strip searches become a difficult task beginning at the six or seven months of pregnancy. By this time my emotional state was up and down, and most of the time I left the “strip room” in tears from shame and humiliation.
At the first ultrasound, the technician looked at the monitor, got up, and ran out of the room, leaving me in a state of panic, thinking there was something wrong with my baby. She came back with the doctor and a big grin on her face. The doctor looked at the monitor, and informed me I was pregnant with twins. At that time, properly named Twin A and B. The first look at my babies was one of pure joy. I wanted so much to share with someone, but the only person I had by my side was a prison guard. I couldn’t talk to her.
At times the medical runs were a horrible experience, then at other times, I looked forward to the escape, even though I went in chains. The horrible times were when the guard drove like a maniac, and when I asked them to slow down, they would refuse. The other times were when I began to get carsick. The guard couldn’t stop at the side of the road because I was a prisoner, and I was forced to get sick in the van. Others wouldn’t even allow me to open the windows for fresh air, because the air conditioning was on. This “air” I hardly felt because of the bulletproof partition between the guards and myself. Others would look at me as if I was about to run at any moment, pregnant, with chains.
Inside the prison, I was placed in a “pregnancy unit,” or “medical unit.” It surprised me to see so many pregnant women in prison, some coming to prison soon before their due dates. When I first came in, there were about twenty or so of us, the numbers fluctuating as women had their baby and were moved to other units. It made me wonder of the cold-heartedness of the judges, who would send pregnant women to prison, when there are other alternatives to incarceration. Was there anyone to speak up for these women, who were bringing life into the world?
A lot of us became close, and I was able to share my fears and worries with older women who had been through childbirth before. There was also a childbirth instructor who came from Children’s Services. It was through the Wayne County Incarcerated Pregnant Women’s Program. We had group therapy sessions in Parenting, Substance Abuse, Domestic Violence, Prenatal Care, Childbirth, and Postpartum. She also came to the hospital after delivery and checked on our progress. If a woman had no one to care for her child, she would set them up with a social worker from the Family Independence Agency. At times, she tried to talk me out of allowing my husband to take care of our babies, but I insisted.
At seventeen weeks I received another ultrasound. Again the technician got up and ran from the room. I couldn’t believe I was pregnant with triplets and knew that something was wrong. Again, she returned with the doctor, who looked at the monitor, looked at me, stating that he was so sorry, but twin B’s heart had stopped beating. I was devastated, how could my baby die and why? I had so many questions left unanswered. There was no reason, “Sometimes things happened like that.” Even after assurances that this would not affect the remaining fetus, I spent the rest of my pregnancy in a state of fear, afraid that I would loose the other twin, too.
Behind prison walls, women are not allowed to show emotion. Our anger, pain, and other feelings, must be kept under tight control. Even outbursts of laughter will be told to “quiet down” or “shut up.” We have no outlet. I tried to talk to my husband, but he couldn’t understand what I was going through. This was also his first child and he was not with me. To speak out or show our true feelings, could lead to misconduct tickets from the guards. So, except for tears, I kept all my emotions inside, never dealing with my incarceration.
During this time the communication with my now ex-husband became almost non-existent. He was in the world doing his thing. I tried to hold onto the hope that he would be there for our child, but it was not to be. At seven months along, he disappeared, never to be heard from again.
Again the woman from Children’s Services approached me, telling me my child would have to go into foster care. I just couldn’t believe this and decided to contact my parents. I hadn’t spoken to them in over a year, they did not know of my pregnancy of my existence in prison. After the first letter, they agreed to take my child until my release. We had our first visit when I was eight months along.
The visits were full of healing, or what I thought was, at the time, healing of old wounds. There were promises of change and unity in the family. Promises that they would keep my child, until my release, with regular visits, photos, and letters. Our estranged past was exactly that, the past, it was time to move toward the future.
On June 25, 1998 after seventy-two hours of hard labor, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She was perfect from head to toe. After first sight I forgot about the pain and only wanted to hold my baby.
During the labor, no one is allowed in the delivery room. My family didn’t even know I was in labor or had her until after I left the hospital. During the three days, some of the guards stayed in the room, but most of the time, when the nurses asked them to sit outside the door, they complied. I have heard horror stories of women being chained to the delivery bed. I am so grateful as to have not experienced this. Most of the nurses treated me as a human instead of a prisoner.
Before my daughter could be brought to me, I had to be brought to a private room. Thirty minutes after giving birth, I was once again handcuffed and chained, and wheeled to another floor. We are not allowed our state uniforms, so the nurses provided me with extra gowns. In fact, when we are kept at any hospital, our state uniforms are taken back to the prison with the transport guards, then brought to the hospital before we leave.
My daughter was allowed to stay in the room with me, instead of the nursery. I was able to care for her during the short time I had with her. That night I fell asleep with her in my arms, fully awaken when the nurse tried to take her from me. During that time, I forgot that I was a prisoner. I was a mother.
Michigan Department of Corrections Policy states that a woman can only spend twenty-four hours with her child before she is brought back to prison. I had to figure out a way to spend more time with her and refused to eat.
I’ve seen the state of other women who have come back lost after giving birth. In a total state of shock and confusion. One woman I know turned to pills, getting high by taking others’ psychotropic drugs. She walked around the unit like a zombie, trying to dull the pain from the separation of her child. One night she OD’d on these pills, was rushed to the hospital, lucky to have survived. She was then taken to segregation and placed on suicide watch. It was so hard seeing her like that. At that time I wondered how I would feel after I had to leave my baby. I used to lay on my bunk at night feeling her more, talking to her or reading a children’s book I found in the library. I couldn’t imagine the day I wouldn’t feel her more or couldn’t talk to her anymore. When that day came, I was desperate.
Refusing to eat gave me a total of three days with my baby. In the end, I was told if I did not eat, that she would be placed in the nursery until I went back to prison. There was no use in staying any longer; I wouldn’t be able to see her.
Before the handcuffs and chains were placed on me, I was given a chance to say goodbye. How do you say goodbye to your newborn child? I felt like I was in a dream, these people were not really telling me I had to leave her! I didn’t want to understand that the world could be that cruel. I couldn’t leave her. The guards began rushing me, telling me it was time to go. What did they mean, time to go, where were we going? My baby was staying there, I couldn’t go with them?
On that day I made promises to my daughter that I would always keep her safe, that I would be home soon, and that I loved her with all my being, body & soul. I told her that she would always be my Angel and my light. I named her Helen after my baby sister. Helen means “light.” She was the light of my life. She is my reason for living. Even though she couldn’t understand the words I was saying, I wanted to comfort her with my voice, it gave me a peace of mind to know that she heard me.
I heard the guard say “Come on, Warner,” and I gave her to the nurse. With every click of the handcuffs and the sound of the chain being locked, my heart shattered. It seemed as if an eternity had passed. Before I was escorted out in a wheelchair, the nurse took Helen out of the room. My heart and soul went with her.
I was taken back to prison, tears streaming down my face, hoping to wake up from this nightmare, left in a state of shock and desperation. The opinion of the guard, “If I wanted to have children, I would have stayed out of prison.” I can remember looking at her with my being full of hatred.
In my pain, anger, and desperation, I became defiant against the system that took me from my baby. With no other emotional outlet, I began fighting with other women, receiving misconduct tickets by the guards, and labeled a management problem. I wasn’t thinking about the consequences, I was hurt and angry, my emotions tumbling out of control.
When my daughter was four-months-old, I experienced another loss, my father died. Fifteen days later, I received a phone call from an attorney telling me my mother had given my baby to the state, and I had to be in court in three days. The reason my mother gave for her actions, she “would not raise a half-black baby by herself.” In her selfishness and prejudice, she forgot about the innocence of her granddaughter.
After that first court hearing with a court appointed attorney, I fought for two years to keep my child. I turned to other family members, but no one wanted to get involved. I had no one to turn to.
Michigan law states that if a parent is incarcerated for two years, their parental rights can be terminated. According to the law, I “neglected” my child because I was in prison, and I couldn’t get out. I have been in front of the parole board three times, only to be denied release each time.
True to the word of the law, my parental rights were terminated in September of 2000. I appealed the court’s decision, only to be told by the court appointed appellate attorney, that if I did not stop the appeal, the Family Independence Agency, would place Helen with a family who would adopt her immediately, the file being sealed. I would not know the whereabouts of my child. I stopped the appeal, by signing an affidavit, out of fear of never knowing where my child was.
My daughter’s foster parents adopted her, and I was lucky to get a good family to raise her. They were allowing me to stay in contact through phone calls once a month. She doesn’t know who I am, but she will talk to me.
Recently MDOC has joined in with the phone company, Sprint, in a money-making operation. Families and friends of prisoners must make a $50 deposit to Sprint in order for us to call. Some are barely able to pay the high costs of the existing phones calls, much less a $50 deposit and the cost of the phone bill. If the deposit is not paid, the phone number is restricted from being reached.
This is what has happened to my phone calls. I have written letters to the family, explaining the new Sprint system. They have not responded and I have not spoken to my daughter in three months. I fear that the adoptive parents no longer want me contacting her any more. The state has terminated my parental rights, per the law they have every right to stop our phone calls. With the new Sprint system, MDOC has stopped a lot of parents from speaking to their children.
I am currently in the process of starting an organization called The P.A.C.K. (The People Against Court Kidnapping). The state has made kidnapping of innocent children legal as long as they do it. It will be an organization of support to incarcerated parents. The kidnapping of children is not only happening in Michigan. Incarcerated parents across the U.S. are forced with the struggle and pain of never seeing their child(ren) again. Pregnant mothers sitting behind bars have no one to turn to, to raise their newborn child. At times when mothers are forced to leave their newborn, they have no idea where the baby is going. The P.A.C.K. will support these parents.
At times I am able to see the pregnant women walking the walkway inside the prison. The numbers go up and down, but there are always pregnant women here. It makes me wonder how many pregnant women are sitting behind prison walls across the U.S.? How many mothers, as you read this, are leaving their newborns at hospitals, only to be returned to prison? How many parents, mothers, and fathers are fighting desperately inside America’s courthouses for the right to keep their children? How many will never see their children again?
This is my voice, one that is screaming out for help in fighting this unjust system. Where are their voices?
By Kebby Warner is incarcerated in Michigan. After losing custody of her daughter, Helen, she became active in the struggle against the prison-industrial complex and is forming an organization called PACK (People Against Court Kidnapping) to protest incarcerated parent’ lack of rights.
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