Prison Born

Alyssa Mayer was four months pregnant the day a police officer showed up at her motel room in Kingston, New York. It was late afternoon in August 2013, the sun dragging toward the Catskills on the west side of town. Earlier that week, her boyfriend, who’d been sleeping at her place since he found out about the baby, had missed a curfew check. Both of them had recently gotten out of prison on parole, and weren’t supposed to be around anyone else with a criminal record. With the authorities looking for him, they could both get in trouble. So they’d packed some clothes and driven to a Super 8 and hoped for some idea of what to do next. Mayer was going out to pick up a pizza when she ran into the officer in the hallway.

She and her boyfriend had grown up together around Kingston. The area had been a manufacturing center for IBM until the company started laying off workers in the early 1990s, around the time Mayer was born, leaving not much more than strip malls and fast-food joints, along with rising crime rates, in stretches of the Hudson Valley. After Mayer’s parents split up, when she was a toddler, her mother worked two jobs and would return home seeming distant. Mayer spent a lot of time at her grandmother’s house and, later, on the streets in the rough part of town. In high school, she moved in with a cocaine dealer she met one day at a gas station. He bought her new clothes, manicures, anything she wanted. By the time the relationship ended, she was making sales of her own.

In 2009, when Mayer was 18, she fronted six grams to a friend who had just gotten out of prison. He told her he was broke and needed to make a quick deal. As it turned out, he had already made one with the local narcotics team. Some time later, the cops kicked in the front door of her apartment, and she ended up with a three-year felony sentence.

When Mayer learned she was pregnant, in the summer of 2013, she had already returned to prison twice for parole violations. She called a clinic to make an appointment for an abortion. She knew she wasn’t in the best position to be a parent—she had started a new job and believed she could turn her life around, but she wasn’t sure that her boyfriend wanted to do the same. She didn’t want her child to be raised without a father, like she had been. Once her boyfriend found out, though, he swore to her that they would work things out. So she didn’t show up for the appointment, and instead got a tattoo across her collarbone that read Blessed. Not long after that, they went on the run.

The officer who handcuffed Mayer in the motel didn’t seem to care when she told him she was pregnant. Neither did the parole judge, who charged her with fraternizing with another parolee and skipping curfew and ordered her back to prison. As she stripped down at the intake facility and stepped forward to be searched, she faced the question that thousands of American women do each year: What happens to a baby born in detention? …

“So many women have a long history of extreme trauma.” …

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