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Helping Moms Behind Bars

Oregon prisoners get support from a lawyer determined to do the merciful thing.

Photo: Andy Batt

OFFICE SPACE: University of Oregon law professor Aldave started the Portia Project, which assists incarcerated women.

By Susan Caba

If Barbara Bader Aldave had her way, Oregon would let infants born to incarcerated mothers stay in prison with their mothers for weeks, or months—or even years—after birth. "I would like to establish a nursery in the prison, so that the women don't get just 12 minutes with the babies and then lose them forever," says Aldave, '60.

Twelve minutes is her exaggeration, but an Oregon prisoner and her newborn remain together only as long as the mother is hospitalized after giving birth. By contrast, the neighboring state of Washington generally allows newborns to live with their mothers for up to three years in separate prison housing.

A nationally recognized expert who helped shape federal law on securities fraud and insider trading, Aldave teaches business law at the University of Oregon and directs its Center for Law and Entrepreneurship. She also earns a substantial part of her income as an expert witness "in cases involving huge sums of money, in which everybody has teams of lawyers and experts."

Which perhaps gives this self-described "rabble rouser" an unusual perspective. "More into relationships than research," the professor wants the law to work as well for the underrepresented as it does for the rich.

The plight of pregnant Oregon prisoners—shackled to hospital beds during delivery and required to sign away parental rights immediately afterward—caught Aldave's attention in 2002. She got the Portia Project involved on behalf of the mothers and saw results. Shackling during labor—banned in federal prisons but unregulated in state facilities—was discontinued after the Portia Project began campaigning against it.

Named for the merciful lawyer/heroine of The Merchant of Venice, the project was conceived by Aldave to defray out-of-pocket expenses as she spent years representing, pro bono, Sherryl Snodgrass, an Iowa convict who sought the right to a parole hearing. In recent years, the Eugene-based organization has focused on the problems of imprisoned mothers, pregnant prisoners and their children. Between 3 and 4 percent of incarcerated women arrive at jail pregnant and give birth while imprisoned, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

At Oregon's Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which houses 1,000 female inmates, about 22 prisoners give birth in a year. Pregnant prisoners now meet with Portia Project executive director Katina St. Marie to make custody arrangements before giving birth, rather than routinely relinquishing parental rights. Aldave and St. Marie co-teach a seminar in which law students represent female prisoners or former prisoners who are trying to reunite with their children. "We find a lot of placements for guardianships, with grandmothers or aunts or other family members," Aldave says. "Not all the mothers are going to end up with full contact, but very few will lose all contact with their children, as they did before."

So far the creation of a prison nursery has been rejected as too expensive, says Heidi Steward, assistant superintendent at Coffee Creek. But the idea has not been ruled out and Aldave certainly isn't giving up. "I have a lot of strategies for trying to implement change," she says. "It's really delicate to know where and how to push, and how hard to push."

She hasn't shied away from pushing since she earned her law degree at UC-Berkeley in 1966. "Scrappy" and "brazen" barely register on the Richter scale of descriptions used by Aldave's admirers or critics. In 1989, she was named dean of St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio. Aldave, a Catholic, intended to anchor St. Mary's program in the values of the school's namesake. She increased minority enrollment fivefold and refocused the curriculum to emphasize social justice.

The transformation was dramatic. Aldave took "an institution that had processed students as if they were slabs of cheese at Velveeta Law School hoping to make partner one day at Cheddar, Mozzarella & Brie" and reshaped it into "a haven for morality-based legal education," wrote activist Colman McCarthy. The American Bar Association named St. Mary's "Public Interest Law School of the Year" in 1997.

Her critics, especially a faction of the law school faculty, complained that she ran the school like a charity. Her predecessor, now deceased, said Aldave "descended on the school like a mist and developed into a fungus of neo-paganism and neo-humanism." She was fired in 1997, when the then-president of St. Mary's expressed hopes that hiring a new dean would unite the faculty.

In Oregon, Aldave continues her longtime advocacy on behalf of Snodgrass, who was imprisoned at Coffee Creek for a time so that she could live near her daughter. Snodgrass was sentenced to life imprisonment in the "love triangle" murder of her husband, with the right to periodic parole hearings. Iowa later rescinded the right of hearings for lifers, including those previously convicted. Aldave took the case on appeal. After six years of tortuous litigation, Snodgrass and others were suddenly granted hearings in 2006. The Iowa Department of Corrections recommended that the governor commute Snodgrass's sentence to a term of years, so the process of releasing her could begin. Then-Gov. Tom Vilsack refused to commute the sentence.

"We can't do anything again until Feb. 9, 2014," Aldave says. "If I have life and breath long enough, after 2014, we may try another federal suit. That's probably why I'm not quite ready to retire."

Susan Caba, a 1997 Knight fellow, is a journalist based in St. Louis.


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