One by one, a line of women in state greens walk down the winding prison roads and up a stairwell, with their arms wrapped around their tiny newborns or cradling their pregnant bellies.
One-year-old Xaylen is one of 26 babies who call Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security women’s prison in New York, home.
Aside from bars on the windows and guards that watch over the premises all hours of the day, it’s hard to believe his nursery is housed inside a prison. Like other babies being raised by their incarcerated mothers, Xaylen spends his day reading books, singing songs and working on other early childhood development skills. The walls are painted in bright pastel colors with characters from Winnie the Pooh and Sesame Street next to signs reading, “This way to Xaylen Street” – leftovers from his recent birthday party.
Even though most newborns will never know the meaning of count, lockdown and curfew, Xaylen and his young friends live in that reality every day. In fact, that’s all Xaylen has ever known.
Exactly one year ago, Xaylen was born while his mom, Kerryann Wiltshire, was serving time at Bedford Hills.
Wiltshire is serving time for criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. She discovered she was pregnant while detained at Rikers Island and was transferred to Hour Children’s facility at Bedford Hills shortly after, where she would complete the rest of her pregnancy, give birth and spend up to a year with her son before they were both released.
“Having him with me is the best choice I made because I got to be able to see my baby grow,” Wiltshire, 24, told InsideEdition.com. “If I could do it again, I would have just stayed out of trouble so I could be home having my baby, but everything happens for a reason.”
‘Babies Come First’
Wiltshire, from Flatbush in Brooklyn, was headed home in a cab in 2015 when police pulled the car over and found a gun in her bag.
She was pregnant at the time of her arrest with her elder son, King Caleb, who is now 3 years old. Wiltshire was initially allowed to serve her sentence at home with an ankle monitor until complications with the monitor led her to be sent to county jail, where she discovered she was pregnant again.
“At first I cried every day,” she recalled. “I had moments that I wish I’d never had the gun but it is what it is. Nobody told me to have a gun so I just had to think positive about the situation. ... I go home soon, just do my time and just keep a positive thinking.”
Because any pregnancy that occurs in prison is considered high-risk, Wiltshire was automatically transferred to Bedford Hills.
Bedford Hills is one of just nine prisons in the United States that allows babies born there to spend the first several months of their lives with their incarcerated moms. The nursery at Bedford Hills, which is housed in a building on prison grounds separate from the general population, is also the longest-running in the country, having opened in 1901. While some countries have federal laws allowing babies to stay with their mothers in prison, the U.S. does not.
Many states do not have specific policy addressing what happens to a baby after an incarcerated mother gives birth or guidelines related to the care for a woman who is pregnant during her incarceration, the National Women’s Law Center reported.
In prisons with no nursery program in place, mothers oftentimes spend several hours to a few days by her newborn’s side before the child is given to a family member or social services.
Instead, Wiltshire was turned over to the care of Hour Children, a volunteer program housed in Bedford Hills that works with incarcerated women who are by New York state law allowed to have their babies with them as they serve their sentence for up to one year. The criteria also takes into account whether they have violent charges, whether they are fit to raise their children and whether they have a history with Child Protective Services.
Because Wiltshire was considered fit to care for her child, was not charged with violent crimes and was given a sentence that would qualify her for release to parole around one year after her son was born, she was considered a candidate for the program.
“When you’re up here, you don’t know it’s prison so it’s not like my baby knows what it is,” Wiltshire said. “This is his home for right now, so that’s all he knows.”
Sharon Ricketts, the nursery manager for Hour Children, explained the program emphasizes caring for the young children.
“Babies come first,” Ricketts told InsideEdition.com. “My care with that mother is all around her parenting needs, her interaction with her child, the developmental needs of that child, the emotional needs of that child, and I get to work with them to help that quality of relationship grow and improve.”
Hour Children’s program acts as an insular world separate from finances or personal relationships and supports the women in strengthening their bond with the babies and developing strong single parenting skills without any distractions.
Ricketts said she and other nursery workers notice the women change and prioritize their children like never before, leading to a more holistic and successful mother-child relationship and a recidivism rate of only 3.5 percent among women that enter their program, Hour Children reported.
In comparison, 29 percent of female prisoners across the state will re-offend in their lifetime, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
“There is this metamorphosis that happens with the women on our nursery,” Ricketts said. “They learn to care, and oftentimes you’ll hear women say, ‘I didn’t care, I didn’t care about myself, I didn’t care about my life, where I was going.’ Now they realize that someone really depends upon them and they begin to do all the work.”
Being locked in a prison with nothing to do but learn to be a good mother was instrumental in helping Wiltshire re-prioritize her kids, she said.
“With King Caleb, sad to say, I had my kid, I was with my kid, but I was also in the street. Like you know, hanging out, partying, fighting. I was trying to do both at the same time,” Wiltshire said. “Being here was like a wake-up call for me. My kid is more important. With Xaylen here, he did so much so fast and he has my full attention.”
Every morning, Wiltshire wakes up at 5:30 a.m. for a standing count. She and Xaylen are housed in their own unit, which contains a crib, a single bed, small drawers of baby clothes, a closet and toys, and a wall filled with pictures of Wiltshire’s friends and family. A small barred window above her bed overlooks the prison grounds.
Her day begins at 6 a.m., and she spends the next two hours making sure she and her son are washed up and fed before she drops Xaylen off at the nursery for a baby movement class at 8 a.m.
The class aims to help infants explore the way their tiny bodies move, Ricketts said.
“The more activity you do with a child face-to-face, a lot of connection contact, all those things just stimulate brain activity and create alertness and responsiveness,” Ricketts said. “It gives them a sense of connection.”
Wiltshire said the focus on Xaylen’s development helped him reach milestones early.
“He likes it because he learns a lot,” Wiltshire said. “He started jumping at 3 months, crawling at 4 and a half, walking at 10 – being here just got my baby doing so much.”
Xaylen’s interaction with other babies on a day-to-day basis was also an environment Wiltshire was never able to provide to King Caleb.
“He's used to being here, used to being around a whole bunch of kids and a whole bunch of people. At home it's not going to be like that,” she explained. “There’s not like a lot of kids in my family around Xaylen’s age.”
Meanwhile, Wiltshire attends her own morning program, which can be anything from working in the nursery, to general business classes, to anger management, depending on each woman’s needs.
She and the other moms reconvene with their babies around 11 a.m., when they head back to their residential unit to have lunch and put the babies down for a short nap.
Some moms have programs scheduled in the afternoon, but Wiltshire and Xaylen return to their unit after the 1 p.m. count and spend the rest of the afternoon bonding.
All prisoners are locked in by 9 p.m. but they are free to continue their night quietly inside their unit until they go to bed.
Every other Wednesday, a doctor from Westchester Hospital comes to the residential unit to give checkups to mothers and babies alike.
“We’re the only facility that has a clinic on site with a doctor, and we’re able to then accommodate those needs of women that are pregnant when they get charged and sentenced,” Ricketts said, adding that if there’s ever a medical concern that might be outside the capabilities off the prison, “the baby will immediately be taken from the facility and, depending upon the nature of the concern, will go to the local hospital.”
“At home, you wouldn’t go to the doctor every two weeks,” Wiltshire said. “King [Caleb] wasn’t going every two weeks, that’s too much.”
Even with the constant medical attention, Wiltshire anticipated complications giving birth to Xaylen. She explained that with her elder son, she ended up getting a C-section due to preeclampsia, so requested another one ahead of her due date with Xaylen.
Despite the additional medical support, Wiltshire said the difference between giving birth surrounded by a loving family and being alone while giving birth incarcerated made the experience even more difficult.
“I cried,” she said. “I go ‘I want my mom, I want my mom.’ But, your family can't be in the room with you. Nobody could be in the room with you. I had to be in it by myself, just with the doctors and the nurses.”
New York law forbids female prisoners from giving birth in handcuffs, but Wiltshire said she has met women from out of state who completed their pregnancies in shackles.
“You're going into the hospital with officers behind you, and people just like looking at you everywhere you go. So that experience left alone is bad, then to be handcuffed and pregnant? And to the bed? Oh I would have been highly upset,” Wiltshire said. “I'm so lucky, so lucky I didn't have to have handcuffs on.”
She said she has heard of other women giving birth shackled, however.
Wiltshire wasn’t struck with preeclampsia until shortly after giving birth, when she and Xaylen had already returned to Bedford Hills. Wiltshire was sent straight to the emergency room where she was put on a 24-hour IV while caregivers at Hour Children took care of newborn Xaylen.
“I stayed there for three days and my baby was here,” she recalled. “I was breastfeeding at the time, and some officers would come to the hospital and bring milk for him.
“It was like a bad experience but it also made me stronger because I know I could do it. Just had to get it done. I wanted to see him,” Wiltshire added.
Hour Children’s facility also makes sure to take care of the mothers’ mental health, including addressing postpartum depression.
“If I’m feeling down one day, I could go to the nursery manager, I could go to the counselor and they would speak to me, they would help me with positive thoughts,” Wiltshire said.
“Sometimes they’re very angry, sometimes they’re very depressed, they’ve suffered a lot of losses and trauma and they themselves are victims as well,” Ricketts explained. “Now they’re having to sort through the pieces of their life and figure out how to put them back together. We’re there for them to help them do that and to be able to prepare for a future.”
Mothers are evaluated and a plan is put into place to set them on the right track in the long term with an emphasis on working through legal issues and social support when they eventually leave prison.
Hour Children provides a required eight-week class and three shorter courses that address incarcerated mothers’ personal goals moving forward.
“Part of that is about exploring their own personal histories, allowing them to explore who they are, what brought them to this place, what’s been the influences in their lives and how that’s going to affect them and their parenting,” Ricketts said. “It allows them to really reevaluate who they are, who they want to be, and then begin the building blocks of how to really work toward a future, and towards the family that they want to create for their own children.”
And despite their differences and the pressures of being in prison, Wiltshire said she feels she can always go to the other moms in the program for support.
“We're all females, we're all in prison so everybody has their mood swings, everybody's away from their family, everybody's not happy,” Wiltshire said. “As much as we sometimes don't agree on certain situations, we're all in this same predicament, we all know how it feels to be incarcerated either pregnant or with your baby so we're all here for one another.”
Despite the high level of care for both Xaylen and Wiltshire, and the community surrounding Wiltshire and her son, she continues to miss the comforts of home, especially being away from her elder son.
“I miss him so much, but he’s good,” Wiltshire said. “He’s being King, being a boy.”
As Wiltshire serves her sentence, her son King Caleb is being raised by her mom at their home in Flatbush.
“He’s going to eat, he's going to take a shower, he's going to learn stuff so it’s nothing really for me to worry about,” Wiltshire said. “Now if he was in the system, God forbid, then I would have not been happy. But I know that he's with my mom, he's with my brothers and sisters, I know that my baby's good. And he talks, so if something’s not good, he will surely tell me.”
King Caleb has been to Bedford Hills since Wiltshire’s incarceration, and got along swimmingly with his newborn brother.
“They just automatically clicked,” Wiltshire said.
She said Xaylen’s dad is also incarcerated, and serving a two- to four-year sentence at Mohawk Correctional Facility in Rome, about three hours away from Bedford Hills.
Wiltshire said Xaylen’s his first son, and she’s excited for them to have a relationship after their release.
“It’s nothing much that he can do, but his family support while he’s incarcerated is good,” Wiltshire said. “Xaylen speaks to them, they get pictures.”
Wiltshire began serving her sentence February 2017, and was released on parole just days after her interview with InsideEdition.com.
She now hopes to pursue nursing after having studied the field in high school.
“It’s going to be something really different,” she said ahead of her release. “I’ve been up here for a while, so I’ve seen all the moms and the babies grow, so it’s going to be kind of weird for me. Not only me, Xaylen too, because this is all he knows.
“But we’ve got to go. We did our time,” Wiltshire said.