IOWA CITY — The baby kicked and rolled inside Khrista Erdman for months, sharing a space so close that Erdman’s heart was the rhythm of her life.
Just 48 hours after Jeweliana Rae Copeland is born, Erdman will turn the newborn over to her husband to raise while she goes back to prison.
Erdman, 32, of Des Moines, is serving a 51-year sentence for a string of crimes that includes forgery, burglary, theft and parole violations. Her first parole review is in 16 months, which means Jeweliana will be a toddler before her mom has a chance at freedom.
For weeks, Erdman was eager for the baby to emerge.
“Now I wish she had waited, because I don’t want to let her go,” Erdman says, staring into her baby’s eyes at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
It’s easy to feel sorry for Erdman. She’s a lovely woman who lights up when she talks about her baby or her husband or her grandmother. It’s easy to put yourself in Erdman’s place and imagine what it must be like to give up your baby just two days after birth.
Some people might even be indignant that non-violent crimes like forgery — writing bogus checks — could keep a young mother in prison for decades.
Note: First in a two-day series on pregnant inmates by Erin Jordan. Coming Monday, Iowa considers prison nursery concept, which allows new moms to have their babies with them in prison.
The indignation starts to crumble when you learn a bit more about Erdman. She has three other children, ages 14, 7 and 2, who are living with their biological fathers or Erdman’s family. She also had a chance to dodge a 30-year prison term if she stayed clean for just two years, but she absconded from probation.
Erdman knows she’s made some bad decisions.
“This is my fourth time in prison,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder when it’s going to be enough.”
A criminal history
Erdman had her oldest daughter when she was 18. Three years later, she forged two checks totaling $35.76 to QuikTrip. She was convicted of forgery four more times in the next decade.
In one case, she counterfeited a payroll check worth $4,800 from her previous employer, the International House of Pancakes. In another case, she signed a false name on a $636 check to Walmart.
In January 2008, Erdman was charged in Marshall County with being an accessory after the fact when a fugitive was found staying at her Marshalltown apartment. At the time, she was managing a Culver’s restaurant and was pregnant with her third child.
Erdman bonded out of jail on April 24, 2008, but failed to tell her probation officer, court records state. The officer found her in June 2008 living in Des Moines.
"She is allegedly using methamphetamine and is several months pregnant,” the officer wrote. “She did not follow through with treatment, is not working and — according to family members — she is not looking for a job.”
Erdman’s latest pregnancy was her healthiest, with three meals a day, regular doctor visits and plenty of time to rest and read baby books at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women at Mitchellville.
Three other pregnant women were serving time at Mitchellville with Erdman. “We say, ‘Hi, prego!’ to each other in the halls. You form a bond, even if you’re not close,” Erdman says.
Erdman measured small in November, but everything looked good at an ultrasound weeks before her Dec. 31 due date. The doctor decided there were other risk factors and brought Erdman from Mitchellville to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville. Not wanting to spend Christmas alone in Des Moines, Erdman’s husband, Dan Copeland Jr., got a hotel room in Coralville so he could visit his wife over the long holiday weekend.
At 6:30 p.m. on Christmas night, Erdman called Copeland to say their baby was coming.
A series of bad choices
Erdman admits she’s always liked men with a “bad boy” image. Besides the fugitive she harbored in Marshalltown, a judge found another man violated a no-contact order Erdman had filed in a Polk County domestic abuse case.
Erdman and a man named Phillip Knight broke into a Culver’s restaurant in Ankeny on May 10, 2009, and stole at least $1,000. She pleaded guilty Sept. 3, 2009, to charges of third-degree burglary as a habitual offender and forgery as a habitual offender. In exchange for completing drug court as part of a two-year probation, Erdman had two 15-year consecutive sentences suspended.
But Erdman ditched her probation officer and was sent to prison June 4 — this time for real time.
“She’s had several opportunities to go out there and make it, and she’s come back,” says Fred Scaletta, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections.
Jaki Livingston, a Polk County prosecutor who gave Erdman the 2009 plea deal, said most addicts carry a lot of baggage. “Drugs are a really hard thing to beat. You get sucked back in,” she says.
Erdman believes she’s starting to make better choices.
She met Copeland in 2008 in a recovery program. A devout Catholic licensed to sell insurance in Iowa, Arizona and Florida, Copeland is a recovering alcoholic, sober for 11 years.
“He wants good things for me, and he also wants good things for himself,” Erdman says. “That’s new for me.”
Copeland, 43, married Erdman on Dec. 3 in the visiting room at the Mitchellville prison. The ceremony was simple: vows and exchange of rings in front of two of Erdman’s fellow inmates as witnesses.
“We had our Hostess Ho-Hos out of the vending machine for our wedding cake,” Copeland says.
He’s been preparing to be Jeweliana’s father since May when he learned Erdman was pregnant. He decorated the nursery, bought diapers and researched the best car seat.
“It’ll be a bumpy road, but I’ve got a good support system, too,” Copeland says.
Copeland was by Erdman’s side at 4:06 a.m. Dec. 26 when she gave birth to a 6 pound, 12 ounce baby girl. Erdman then asked doctors to tie her fallopian tubes, so she can’t have any more children.
Still hope for the future
On Dec. 27, Erdman looks tired but proud. She has less than 24 hours left with her baby. She cradles Jeweliana and taps the baby’s mouth with a fingertip.
“You’re not a bird,” Erdman coos as Jeweliana opens her mouth, as if preparing to nurse.
Erdman hasn’t tried to breast-feed her baby in the hospital. What’s the point? Jeweliana will be bottle-fed as her mother’s milk dries up in prison.
Copeland and Erdman try to make the most of the two days they have together as a family. They dress the baby in cute clothes and take dozens of photos. Copeland runs out to develop the pictures, so Erdman can take them back to Mitchellville.
“You really watch them grow up through pictures,” she says.
Copeland plans to bring Jeweliana to visit Erdman every weekend at Mitchellville, about 15 miles east of Des Moines.
“Except during football and baseball seasons,” Copeland jokes, getting a mock-stern look from his wife.
Erdman’s grandmother, Pattie Wilcox, will watch Jeweliana during the day when Copeland goes back to work. He was fired from his insurance job in December and is pursuing a lawsuit, alleging his former employer didn’t give him proper leave to care for the baby.
The newlyweds are hopeful about the future. He wants to hire a limo to pick her up when she’s released and take her out to dinner. He also wants to get married again, this time in the Catholic Church.
“That’s what we’re hoping and praying for,” he says. “It’s time to put the past behind us and to be a family.”
This family faces tough odds. A 2006 study of data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that of 25,000 female offenders released from prison in 1994, 60 percent were rearrested and 30 percent went back to prison. A smaller Nebraska study showed that half of women who gave up babies in prison went back to jail.
Erdman is taking a correspondence course in psychology and leads a mentoring program at Mitchellville. She wants to help other pregnant inmates understand their rights and options. Erdman plans to join a mothers’ support group and read storybooks on CD for Jeweliana.
She thinks this time, if she’s released from prison, she can stay out of trouble.
First, she has to let go of her baby.“Maybe this is what I need in my life,” Erdman says, as if convincing herself. “This one is hard. I wouldn’t trade her for the world, but I wish I had made some different choices.”