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Inmates' liaison results in child
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Inmates' liaison results in child

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Queen was delivered Jan. 30, 2001, at 12:03 a.m. at the Children's Medical Center of the University of Virginia, nine months after an illicit conception in the Richmond City Jail.

Although hundreds of children are born to incarcerated parents in the U.S. each year, a child conceived behind bars by inmates is believed rare. A few states allow conjugal visits, but all states segregate inmates by sex and prohibit relations between inmates.

Today, Queen's father has 12 years left to serve in prison, and her mother, released since Queen's birth, is back in jail.

Queen is being raised by her paternal grandmother, Deborah, who is also raising Micole, Queen's younger half sister, also born while her mother was an inmate but by a different father.

"It's a crazy story," concedes Cedric Johnson, Deborah's son and Queen's father. "Unfortunately, it's the way things are turning out . . . but, they're in good hands. I can't imagine how it would have been if my mom hadn't took custody.

"There really wasn't nobody else," he said.

A jail deputy allowed Johnson and inmate Carmelia Dennison to have privacy inside a supply room of the A Building in late April or early May of 2000, Johnson said. He knows his courtship with Dennison was as short on good sense as it was on intimacy and romance.

What passed for sweet talk was exchanged via air ducts. "I know it sounds funny," Johnson said in a recent interview, "but I met her . . . talking through the vents."

Tara Dunlop, a jail spokeswoman, said an internal-affairs investigation in June 2000 found that Dennison was impregnated by a male inmate she called her boyfriend. Dunlop said Dennison, who also goes by Carmelia Perkins, reported that the two had relations in the building.

No jail employee was disciplined as a result of that investigation, Dunlop said.

Denise Johnston, director of The Center for Children With Incarcerated Parents, has never heard of a child conceived between inmates in a large urban jail and is skeptical it could happen without the help of staff.

In any case, she said, circumstances such as Queen's are "very, very rare."

However, Brenda V. Smith, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said she knew of such pregnancies when she represented inmates in Washington in 1993. The inmates' relations happened with the help of the staff, she said.

"That's my only experience to say I know for sure it happened. But, I'm not surprised at all. . . . I think that the uncommon thing is that somebody is being forthright about the way that it occurred," she said.

. . .

Court records show that by 1996, Dennison, now 34, had two children then being cared for by her mother.

Dennison's lawyer said Thursday that Dennison declined to comment until after a scheduled Aug. 10 court appearance. Dennison's arrest record, primarily on drug charges and probation violations, goes back more than a decade.

Johnson said Dennison is very intelligent. But, he said, "evidently this drug-abuse problem has been there for a number of years."

Johnson, 28, was convicted in Richmond of a 1998 murder. A 1997 graduate of Henrico High School, Johnson had never been arrested before and he is adamant he is innocent of the murder. The judge disagreed but imposed a minimum sentence.

Johnson had already fathered two children by another woman -- both of them now cared for by their mother. He said he did not know he was their father until after his arrest at age 19.

At the jail that spring, Dennison was on the bottom, all-female, floor of the A Building. Johnson was on the second floor, for males. He said that each was trusted to leave their cells to perform cleanup and other chores in the common areas of their respective floors.

As a result, at times they could glimpse each other near the stairway. They also exchanged notes. Some of the jail staff knew they were flirting, Johnson said.

A deputy he knew agreed to let them have some privacy, he said.

Twice, while the female deputy on the women's floor was occupied, the male deputy allowed them to have privacy in a supply closet, Johnson said.

He said he knows it was irresponsible and that he should have known better. But, he said, "I'd been in there a year. . . . Anybody in my situation would have did it."

According to the Department of Corrections, Dennison was transferred to the Virginia Correctional Center for Women on May 23, 2000. Johnson said Dennison suspected she was pregnant before she left the jail. He said a physical examination when she arrived at the prison confirmed it.

She was then sent to the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where pregnant inmates are housed. Queen was born at the hospital in nearby Charlottesville.

Deborah had Cedric write Dennison to see whether Dennison would allow her to take the baby when she was born. Incarcerated mothers are not allowed to keep their babies in prison. Deborah said Dennison agreed to give the baby to her and that she visited Dennison in prison before Queen was born.

Deborah said that Queen bears a strong resemblance to her son. "He said there wasn't any need for a [DNA] test. . . . He signed off on the birth certificate," she said.

After Dennison was released, Deborah said she disappeared leaving Queen with her.

Dennison wound up back in jail. Deborah said, "She told me that she was pregnant again, in a letter, and she told me the child was a girl."

Deborah said that after reading the letter, she called Dennison. "I told her that I had cried because it hurt my heart that this would be happening again, another child. But I asked her, 'Could I have that child, also?'"

. . .

She picked up Micole at VCU Medical Center after her birth on June 15, 2003. Jail records show that Dennison returned to jail three days later. She was later released again but was rearrested last month.

Queen has visited her mother both at prison and at the jail. Aside from infrequent phone calls, there has been no other contact with either child, Deborah said. They last heard from Dennison in September before she was last released from jail.

Deborah does not know who Micole's father is. The three of them live with her 30-year-old daughter's family in suburban Richmond.

Deborah said, "I wouldn't want anybody else to have them because you hear so many stories of kids being abused."

Johnson's father, Ellis Sarron Johnson, 52, and Deborah are divorced. He said that he and Deborah believe Cedric is innocent and have sacrificed a great deal financing their son's unsuccessful appeals. "A lot of money. A lot of waiting for answers. It's been stressful," he said.

Deborah and Ellis and Cedric Johnson said the girls are loved and that their arrival has been a blessing that outweighs the additional burden.

. . .

Queen has just finished kindergarten. Micole, 4, is in day care while Deborah is at work. The girls go to church twice a week, and every other weekend they drive to the prison in Lunenburg County to visit Cedric.

On alternate weekends, Ellis visits their son.

Queen says she is happiest at home and that she loves her father, mother, grandparents, cousins, aunts and other family members. When she grows up, she wants to be an artist, painting pictures of herself and her friends.

She says that when she visits prison, she and her father play tic-tac-toe -- sometimes he wins, sometimes she does.

Deborah said Queen has had some difficulty now that she has started school. "The little kids might say, 'Where is your mother, or where is your daddy?' And that tends to bother her," she said.

Ellis Johnson says Queen is very smart, but a loner of sorts.

"When she's around a lot of kids, you'll notice sometimes that she'll go off by herself and just play for a while -- not like she's being rude or ugly about it -- that's just the way she is. It's almost like she goes into her own little world."

Micole calls Cedric "Daddy," too, Johnson said. He says that because of Deborah, Queen "has a better relationship with her father that some kids don't even have with their parents who are not incarcerated."

Queen and Micole appear to enjoy a safe neighborhood and what appears to be a strong family life -- circumstances far better than those of some of their peers who live in poverty and neglect.

But there are no guarantees for their future.

Deborah has gone to court seeking stronger custody of the girls so that they could only be moved from her care with a judge's permission. "I just want something legal for their welfare, for their best interest." She said that she could also use some financial help.

Cedric Johnson says he wants to sue the jail for more support for Queen. Deborah receives roughly $300 a month in support from the state to raise the two girls. "I think they should help my mother take care of my daughter at least until I get out."

He concedes that he is responsible for the pregnancy. "But they were responsible for me. . . . It should have never happened."

Contact Frank Green at (804) 649-6340 or fgreen@timesdispatch.com.

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