Born In Custody, A Girl Finds Answers With Someone Who Knows Best: Mom

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Savannah Phelan, 8, and her mom, Kellie, in front of a 77-foot mural they helped paint, which reflects the experiences of children and teenagers affected by incarceration.

When 8-year-old Savannah Phelan came across a video recently, she found herself brimming with questions she didn't know the answer to. That's because the online video depicted her mom, Kellie, talking about being pregnant while serving time in New York City's Rikers Island jail complex.

Savannah brought those questions — and her mother — to StoryCorps, where they had one of their first conversations about the video and what it means.

"I started using drugs when I got into an accident and I broke my knee," Kellie Phelan explains to her daughter. "And that caused me to start taking pills that was prescribed from a doctor. But then Mommy kind of got out of control with them, and I wound up getting arrested."

She was seven months pregnant when she was arrested on a misdemeanor drug possession charge and sent to Rikers.

It was lonely in jail, Kellie tells Savannah, not to mention quite frightening. And while she gave birth in a hospital, Kellie Phelan returned to Rikers shortly afterward, where she remained in a special section of the jail with Savannah for the final weeks of her sentence.

"Oh, my God, I loved you so much," Kellie tells her daughter. "And I just wanted everything in the world to be perfect for you."

Still, for years she didn't tell Savannah about her experiences in jail. She had been waiting until she was sure Savannah would be old enough to understand — but there was also an element of dread in that delay.

"I think that I was afraid to tell you, because it breaks my heart. And I get very sad when I talk about it."

How did Savannah feel when she heard?

"Very sad," she says, "because I don't want you to be lonely. And I will never walk away from you."

Nevertheless, Savannah feels good finally knowing; she feels as if she understands the circumstances of her mom's life a little better.

"You know, Mommy had it a little rougher than you," Kellie says. "My education wasn't great when I was young, and that's part of the reason I failed later on in life."

But Savannah should never feel ashamed, Kellie says.

"Because you are my angel. You saved my life. And I will forever be grateful for you. Not everybody gets to save their mom's life."

Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris and Emily Martinez.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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