NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Department of Correction's (TDOC) Overnight Child Visitation Program is returning to Tennessee women's prison programming after COVID-19 suspended it for nearly two years.
The program became the first of its kind in the United States in 1989 and remains one of only three or four states to implement one.
"You have to take classes, you have to have a parenting class in order to go, you have to be write-up free in order to go visit. Once you break the rules, and you have to wait a couple of months and let the write up fall out, and then you're able to go again. It really gives them something to look forward to," explained TDOC Debra K. Johnson Rehabilitation Center Sergeant Veronica Hunter, who has seen the program in action for 16 years.
The visitation program allows eligible mothers to spend two weekends of the month with their children in an overnight facility retrofitted for children and their mothers. The program in Nashville only extends to children 6 years old and younger.
Bethany Wilson began her sentence in April 2019 when her son was only 19 months old.
"If I didn't do anything right in life, like he's, he's the thing I did right," Wilson said.
When COVID hit, she had only seen her son one time in seven months.
"It seemed like for months and months they kept saying, like, it [COVID] wasn't getting better and I just started feeling real down about it because I'd never really been away from him until I got locked up," Wilson explained. "So I'm like, thinking back now like I got really wary at the end of 2021. They still were saying it doesn't look good... it was just really hard."
While the program was suspended for nearly two years, Wilson's relationship with her son was confined to phone calls.
"He was young. So I would just talk to him and read them books and I did a whole lot of praying during that time. And I just prayed that he wouldn't forget me," recalled Wilson. "He wasn't even talking at the time. So it was just a whole lot of one-sided conversation, but he was hearing the voice he was hear my voice."
At the end of 2021, Wilson and her son were finally reunited—her son then 4 years old.
"I just hugged him and I was like crying because that was just like that moment that I felt like I was like I've been waiting I had been pushing me like asking, asking, asking and praying and praying and praying," Wilson said.
Since then, maintaining good behavior has allowed Wilson to continue seeing her son two weekends of the month including over Mother's Day.
"This would be the best Mother's Day gift I've had the whole time I’ve been locked up to get to see him and spend it with him," said Wilson with a smile. "One thing about kids, they always know who the moms are, they'll never forget. They’ll never forget that. And you should never just you shouldn't ever sit down and just be okay with not being involved in your kids life. You should no matter if it's phone calls, letters, you should keep pushing for your relationship, your kids no matter what. And no matter where you're at, you're still a mom, so if you're not in their lives, you should still carry yourself like a mother because that's what you should do as a mother for your kids."
Hunter said over her 16 years, she has seen countless success stories.
"It helps. You get to stay on track. You know, it's like one day at a time so they're out there ripping and running. Because 'I have responsibilities. I work when I get off, I have to take care of my child, I have to take them to daycare.' So it gives a really gives them something to look forward to when they leave," Hunter explained.
Helping the mother inmates put themselves in the right head-space to be a mother is a priority for Hunter as that is paramount for their success when they are released.
"The relationship is already built because you started here, even though you locked up. When you go out there, you know what to expect and how the child act. It's not like it's something new," said Hunter. "They've been seeing you so we had a lot of ladies that go home and they just, they're doing wonderful. The kids are with them. You get to get your kids back. So they know exactly what to expect."
Wilson is set to be released later in 2022 but said in the meantime, she is grateful for the overnight program.
"At the end of the day, it's for the kids to get to be able to see their parents because you know that we made our mistakes. It shouldn't, you know–they're already getting affected but as far as seeing their, you know, their parents, they should get to see the parents no matter what," Wilson explained.