'Pregnant Behind Bars': Chicago Women Tell Their Stories in New TV Series
CHICAGO — Selling cocaine on the city's streets is what eventually landed Tanya Head in jail when she was about 12 weeks pregnant.
The 30-year-old, who said she had a "history of trauma," grew up in and out of group homes. She was arrested as a juvenile, and later as an adult for carjackings and robberies. Despite her past, it was getting busted for a drug deal at 79th and Bishop that put her behind bars for the first time.
Head is one of the inmates featured in a new Discovery Fit & Health show, "Pregnant Behind Bars," which focuses on Cook County Jail's Division 17 — where pregnant inmates are held, along with women dealing with addictions and mental health issues.
The first episode of the show features Head and about five other pregnant inmates as they struggle with the consequences of their crimes.
"Bad things happen in jail," Head said, adding that her pregnancy intensified her fears about living behind bars. Fights and direct threats to the inmates' babies occur regularly, according to other women featured in the reality series. And then there is the fear about what will happen after they give birth.
"I thought [my son] was going to be taken away from me," Head said. "I was scared when I went in there — and that was my first time ever in Cook County Jail."
Division 17 began in 1999, and according to division Supt. Kelly Baker, acts as "a pilot program" for jail facilities around the state. It's in many ways the only program of its kind, she said, especially in its use of "contact visits," which allow mothers to see their kids in person and play with them. The division also offers counseling and health care, and assigns caseworkers to help the women adjust to life after prison.
Despite the services, Head said jail was no walk in the park. The diet of "cheese, broccoli and bologna" got old fast, and the stress of being around 400 women — many of them also pregnant — took its toll.
When she was ready to give birth four months into her sentence, she had to undergo an emergency C-section when her son's umbilical cord became wrapped around his neck.
But he lived, she named him Nylen, and she said her jail experience gave her the "structure" and "patience" she needed to raise Nylen and her 8-year-old daughter without falling into old habits.
Head made the most of her jail experience, but Baker said she's seen women on their third pregnancy behind bars who still haven't gotten the message.
"A lot of mothers come in, and they're sick from the drugs," Baker said. "They're not focused on the immediate reality of the child."
Those children are likely to end up in DCFS custody if an adult or family member isn't available to care for them.
Roxanne Hughes is only 28 years old, but has been arrested 32 times, most recently for prostitution — at 10 weeks pregnant.
“Right after I found out I was pregnant, I spent my first week detoxing. ... As much as I tried to stay away from the drug, I always ended up prostituting, getting high, doing crimes, ending up in jail. I just feel like that’s, like, that’s my destiny," she said during an interview for the show.
Baker and other employees of the Cook County Jail hope access to caseworkers, parenting classes and drug rehabilitation can get the women back on their feet, and not only for their sake.
Contact visits "make as much difference for the child as the mother," Baker said.
Most incarcerated moms are transferred to the jail hospital, Cermak Health Services, two weeks before they are due — and return to the jail after giving birth.
Head, however, was lucky. She said with the help of a "great caseworker" and good behavior during her four months in jail, she was able to give birth to Nylen outside the prison hospital, and was released just three days after his birth.
"The good thing was that he wasn’t born while I was in jail," she said. "But I will let him know that he was a miracle because I changed everything around. He's a big change to me ... because if I didn’t have [him], I don’t know where I would’ve ended up.
Head remains under house arrest in Auburn Gresham, and will learn Wednesday whether she has to return to jail to serve out the remainder of her sentence. She vowed to not make the same mistakes again.
"You only had to tell me once," Head said of her experience behind bars. The show "gave me a chance to speak out. That was my chance to talk to someone about the things they shouldn't do, so they won't make the same mistakes I made."
"Pregnant Behind Bars" premieres Thursday on Discovery Fit & Health.