December 25, 2012

In jail for Christmas

Eight Maine mothers, locked up because of substance abuse, talk about living, learning and what they're missing.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Inmates talk about missing the holidays, Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, at the Cumberland County Jail. Jaden Brown of Portland, mother of three, speaks about being incarcerated during Christmas.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

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Inmate Jessica Dennison of Portland embraces the Rev. Jeffrey McIlwain after speaking to the press about being incarcerated during Christmas.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Kristy Cookson of New Gloucester, mother of five, weeps after talking about being incarcerated during Christmas.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

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Jessica Dennison of Portland, right, listens as Jaden Brown of Portland speaks about being incarcerated during Christmas.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

 


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