PORTLAND – Jessica Dennison is locked up yet again, spending this Christmas in the Cumberland County Jail, away from her 10-year-old daughter and the rest of her family.
She wants to remember it as a low point, and never come back.
“This year, I feel like I failed because I’m not there for her,” said Dennison, who is 29 and a single mother. “Hopefully, I can learn from this.”
Dennison, who lived in Portland most recently, was one of eight women who volunteered when asked by the jail chaplain, the Rev. Jeffrey McIlwain, to gather and speak with the Portland Press Herald about spending the holidays in jail.
All eight are mothers and all eight went to jail, directly or indirectly, because of alcohol or drug use.
“It’s extremely hard. You want to be with your family, be at home, baking, cooking, wrapping presents. That’s tradition for us,” Dennison said. “I’m honest with (my daughter). I told her I broke the law, and sometimes when you break the law you go to jail.”
Dennison, who is serving a 30-day sentence for a probation violation, said she wanted to tell her daughter the truth because being in jail makes her feel powerless, unable to help her daughter, to be there for her or make anything better.
“That’s the hardest thing about being in jail, is you have no control,” she said.
Jennifer Dionne of Brunswick said her son is only 2 years old and probably won’t remember why she went away.
“I’ve come back so many times that hopefully this is the last time,” Dionne said. “I just missed his birthday, too. It’s a really hard thing for me.”
Dionne said she’s luckier than many mothers in jail because her son stays with her family and will celebrate Christmas with them.
“A lot of people who come here don’t have a family like me. I feel blessed,” she said.
Dionne, who is addicted to heroin, said, “It’s hard to think of the consequences when you’re under the influence.”
Now serving a four-month term, she has until February to think, be sober, rebuild and pray. “What I pray for now is that God will let me forgive myself,” she said.
McIlwain, known in the jail as “Reverend Jeff,” sat silent through most of the conversation, but nodded and repeated Dionne’s point.
“That’s a big thing, you have to forgive yourself,” he said.
Dionne said she was religious as a child, but lost her faith when she was a teenager. Now, she participates in the jail’s prayer group.
“I used to think, ‘If there’s a God, then why is he doing this to me?’ And now I pray every day, all day long,” she said.
Meghan Perreault said that even if she weren’t serving a one-year jail sentence, she wouldn’t be able to see her sons, ages 7 and 9.
“I’ve struggled. I’ve struggled with drugs, and my ex-husband won’t let me see them until I get better,” she said.
Perreault said she was locked up for the boys’ last two birthdays, missed the first day of school and is now out of the picture for the holidays.
“It’s my fault,” she said. “Right now, they think I just up and left. He’s not telling.”
Perreault said she has struggled with substance abuse for 17 years — since she was 11 — and worsening drug addiction for the past six years. Even her fellow inmates expressed surprise that she started so young.
She said that if she were released, she would be homeless and in no position to support her children.
“It’s nice being in here, sober, so you look back at what you did,” Perreault said. “I’m kind of happy I’m in here. It’s kind of like rehab.”
Kristy Cookson of New Gloucester, who is being held on a probation violation charge, surprised some of the other women when she said she has five children.
Her three oldest, who are 13, 12 and 8, now live with her mother and grandmother in Florida. Her two youngest, who are 19 months and 4, live with their father in Maine, she said.
“It’s really hard, and over Christmas, I feel like I’ve let them down,” Cookson said.
She said her youngest children are too young to really understand, but her older children know the family’s Christmas traditions.
“My son, my oldest, he said I’m the best mom ever,” Cookson said. “It’s amazing how your kids can forgive you and still love you.”
Tears rolled down Cookson’s face as she struggled to keep talking. Many of the other women wiped their eyes, too, prompting McIlwain to quickly hand out tissues.
“I do believe God does everything for a reason,” Cookson said.
But later, she said it isn’t her fault that she’s in jail this time. She was with someone who was drinking, and that person’s actions led her to be charged with a probation violation.
Some of the women who had cried with her earlier immediately interrupted her, one saying Cookson couldn’t blame someone else and another telling her to “own it.”
Cookson conceded and agreed that she could learn a lesson. She said she was thankful that her children weren’t there when she was arrested.
“The excuse is done,” said Jaden Brown of Portland.
Brown, who’s only 22, said she has learned already that she’s headed down the wrong path.
She remembers past holidays when her mother was locked up.
Now, she has two sons, ages 5 and 2, and a 4-year-old daughter.
“My mom’s in prison for 10 years, so I know exactly how it feels,” Brown said.
Brown lost custody of her youngest son to the state because she and the child’s father went to jail.
“I can’t cry about it. All that’s ever done for me is gotten me to the bottom of a bottle of brandy,” Brown said. “I’ve actually taken from jail a lot, from the AA meetings to the NA meetings to the Bible study.”
She said older women who come back to the jail as volunteers have taught her that if she keeps doing drugs and drinking, she will waste half of her life.
“Orange is not my color,” she said, referring to her jail uniform and drawing laughter from the other women. “When I get out, I hope that I’m going to do something different.”
Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: