Two little boys, their faces painted like cats, sat on either side of Terika Ratcliff on Tuesday morning on the lawn of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.
The toddlers reached for the food on Ratcliff’s plate with familial closeness on the first time in six months the 23-year-old mother of five had seen them.
“Crazy,” is how Ratcliff described her emotions during the jail’s seventh annual One Day With Kids, an event for women inmates who’ve completed a six-week parenting and life-skills program called Second Chance 2 Recovery.
“It changes your way of thinking as far as negativity and positivity,” Ratcliff said.
And the program, facilitated by Southern University, offers one of the rare chances for inmates to spend a full day being physically close to their children.
About 20 women and 45 children, all dressed in matching red T-shirts bearing the name of the event, participated in Tuesday’s gathering. It offered craft-making, face-painting, popcorn, food and live animals as entertainment for children to enjoy with their mothers.
The inmates must have a good behavioral record at the jail to participate, said the program’s coordinator, Tiffany Wilkerson-Franklin of Southern University’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center. East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks added the women must not be accused of crimes against children.
These “intimate” visits, as opposed to conversations across a glass pane, reduce behavioral problems among inmates, said Warden Dennis Grimes. But a formal study of their impact on local recidivism hasn’t yet been done, he said.
Rahkeyah Howard, a 34-year-old mother of four, said being in jail has affected the way she thinks about parenting.
“It’s taught me patience,” she said, her 7-year-old daughter clinging to her side.
The inmate of seven months said the jail program helped her build her self-esteem, mentally preparing her for opening her own catering business one day.
“I’m very proud of my children. I’m proud of myself. I’m less stressed,” she said.
Wilkerson-Franklin said the course helps re-establish authority for parents who aren’t able to regularly supervise their children.
“We can nurture that relationship to the point of, ‘I love you, but I’m still your mom, even though I’m away from you,’” she said.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.