Mothers in prison struggle to keep connection

Lissette Almodovar records for her nieces. She hasn't heard from her daughter since she was imprisoned.
Lissette Almodovar records for her nieces. She hasn't heard from her daughter since she was imprisoned. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: September 18, 2012

From an old cassette tape player in a sunny Pennsauken kitchen, Lissette Almodovar's voice filled the room. She told a story about red, yellow, and green dogs running up a tree to throw a party. At the table, her nieces - 4-year-old twins with long curly pigtails - followed along with the book.

Then Almodovar, a 30-year-old from Camden serving her ninth year in prison, sang. The girls, Anna and Kayla Ruggless, didn't understand the Spanish lyrics. But their mother, Almodovar's sister Jolanda Rivera, caught her breath at the first note.

"It's been a long time since I heard my sister sing," Rivera, 32, said, wiping away tears. Their mother, who died at age 41, used to sing that song to them.

"Basically, what she's saying is, 'Mother, hear me,' " Rivera said.

Like many incarcerated mothers, Almodovar doesn't hear from her 10-year-old daughter. She sees her nieces only on occasion.

But every other month, she records stories for them and sends the tapes and books by mail in the hope of maintaining a familial bond while she serves 15 to 18 years for aggravated manslaughter.

"I can still share a part of me with my daughter," Almodovar said in an interview last month. "I can still put her to bed, give her little stories, and sing her a little song."

Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania use recorded bedtime stories to help incarcerated mothers stay connected to their children back home. The idea began as a Chicago ministry's Christmas project in 1993, as strict drug sentencing laws put more and more mothers into prisons. At least 20 states now have similar programs, according to the Chicago group, Companions Journeying Together Inc.

Since 1991, the number of children nationally with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131 percent, according to a 2008 federal report. More than 1.7 million children under age 18 reported having a parent in prison, according to the report. About 75 percent of women in prison are mothers, and often they were the sole caregivers for the children before their incarceration.

About 100,000 children in Pennsylvania alone have a parent in prison, and many of those children develop behavioral problems, struggle at school, or harbor feelings of guilt, anger, and shame, according to a report released last winter by a legislative task force.

"It matters a lot for the child in particular, for their mental and physical development; it's very important to maintain that bond," said Ann Schwartzman, policy director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society and chairwoman of the task force. "The parent is still somebody that the child may love. It doesn't matter to that child what the crime may be."

In most cases, it's beneficial to help the incarcerated parent and the child connect however possible, Schwartzman said.

"Ninety-five percent of all the people who are incarcerated are coming out, and we really are working with individuals and hoping that they will become taxpayers and productive citizens and take care of their children, so the rest of us . . . don't have to pick up the tab," she said. "If you're going to have all these people locked up, why not use the time to build up those relationships?"

Pat Brisson, a children's book author and retired librarian, started the storybook program nine years ago at New Jersey's women's prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County. She said that anywhere from 25 to 75 women sign up to participate each month she comes.

"People say, 'You're working with criminals,' " Brisson said. "Well, their children didn't do anything. And these children deserve to have communication with their moms. . . . I'm a mom. I put myself in their place."

Robin Freudenberger, 31, of Burlington County, has been incarcerated for 14 years. During that time, her daughter, Shelleyanne, has clung to whatever her mother sent to her: books, tapes, an embroidered washcloth that she carried around like a good luck charm.

Freudenberger used to record and send books about horses, her daughter's favorite animal. Like many children, Shelleyanne aspired to be a veterinarian.

Shelleyanne is now 16, so Freudenberger sends stories she remembers from high school, such as Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

"It's a physical thing that is me," Freudenberger said. "I can't call home every day. If she wants me and I'm not there, she can always listen to the tape, and it's a comfort."

Freudenberger was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated manslaughter and will be eligible to move to a halfway house in two years. Her grandmother has cared for Shelleyanne and kept the family in contact. Still, Freudenberger knows it will be challenging to reunite with her daughter after missing her childhood.

"I'm not the enforcer; I'm more like her friend," she said.

For Almodovar, the path to reunification will be more difficult. She has not seen or heard from her daughter, Aracelis, since she was first locked up in 2003. An uncle took guardianship of the girl and cut off contact with Almodovar after her conviction on charges of aggravated manslaughter.

Almodovar was 19 when she helped plan a robbery of a former employer, a cab company dispatch center in Camden. One of her accomplices shot her former boss dead.

Almodovar said in court that she didn't expect anyone would be hurt in the robbery. But she admits that she made a huge mistake that she regrets every day.

At the time of the robbery, Almodovar and her siblings were reeling from the sudden death of their mother, who died of complications of an asthma attack.

"I lost myself," Almodovar said as she sat in the Edna Mahan library, where she had just finished recording the tape for her nieces. "My mother was my rock; it was like my whole world."

When Almodovar first started sending the packages to her daughter, her uncle threw them away, Rivera said. Once, Aracelis got to the mailbox first, another sister told Almodovar. Aracelis hugged the package to her chest, saying, "It's from my mommy."

Now Almodovar sends the packages to Rivera or her youngest sister for safekeeping. Almodovar isn't eligible for parole until 2019, and her sisters are waiting until Aracelis gets older to remind her about her mother.

For Almodovar, it's a comfort to know her daughter will hear the recordings someday.

"This program has really given me peace at a time when I lost a little girl, and I felt I wasn't going to have anything to share with her," Almodovar said.


Lissette Almodovar, an inmate at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in New Jersey, reads a book for her twin nieces at www.philly.com/bedtime


Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237, jfarrell@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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