Prison Guard Lost Job for Taking in Inmate’s Baby: ‘It Was the Right Thing to Do’

Roberta Bell photo
Roberta Bell, left, with Katie Bourgeois and her son, Kayson Bourgeois, on July 6, two days after Bourgeois was released from prison.

Katie Bourgeois had been incarcerated for a few months in a Louisiana prison earlier this year when she learned she was pregnant.

“I felt panicked – I didn’t have anyone who would help, and I didn’t want my baby to get sent away with Child Protective Services,” said Bourgeois, 30, who was serving time for drug charges. “I wasn’t sure what to do or where to turn.”

Bourgeois knew she would give birth to her baby while she was locked up at the Louisiana Transition Center for Women – a privately-run educational and training corrections facility in Tallulah, La., for inmates within one year of being released.

Bourgeois’s due date was in mid-May, about seven weeks before her release date in July.

Bourgeois told some of the other women at the facility about her predicament, and several of them mentioned that there was a corrections officer who was kind and might be willing to help her. The officer, Roberta Bell, was known to love babies.

“Everyone said she was sweet and always kept her word,” Bourgeois said.

One morning, while inmates were lined up to receive their daily medications, a friend of Bourgeois’s approached Bell and explained the situation.

Bell, who did not know Bourgeois, said she walked right over to Bourgeois and offered to help.

“I knew it was the right thing to do,” Bell said.

“When I asked Katie if she’d like me to come and get her baby when it was time, you could see the relief on her face,” she added. “She said, ‘Miss Bell, I’d love for you to take my baby, because I don’t have anyone else to do it.'”

Bell said that sealed her commitment.

She told Bourgeois that she’d take in the newborn for about two months while Bourgeois finished her prison time.

“I knew that God wanted me to follow my heart, and I knew I couldn’t allow a baby to go to protective services when Katie really wanted that child,” she said.

Bell also knew it violated the rules of her employment, because corrections officers are not allowed to give their personal contact information to inmates. She said she thought she might get permission under the circumstances.

Bell told her supervisor about her plan to look after Bourgeois’s baby until her release in July. Bell said that during the day, she could leave the baby at a nearby day care that was run by a friend.

“[My supervisor] said it sounded like a conflict of interest because I worked there, but that he’d talk to some people in charge,” Bell said. “I didn’t hear back about it.”

Officials at the Louisiana Transition Center for Women and the corporation that operates the prison, Security Management, did not respond to several calls and emails from The Washington Post requesting comment about Bell’s employment.

Bell, meanwhile, watched Bourgeois’s belly grow, and she waited.

On May 16, when Bourgeois went into labor and was sent to a hospital for the delivery, Bell said she was called into a meeting with administrators at the facility.

“The captain said, ‘We’ve learned that your contact information was given to an inmate,’ and he told me it was against the rules,” Bell recalled. “He asked if I was still going to go through with [caring for the baby], and I told him that if the hospital called me, I was going to go and get that child.”

She said she wanted to help Bourgeois and decided to face whatever consequence came her way.

Bell said she was hoping the consequence would not be steep. She had worked in juvenile and women’s corrections as a guard for about eight years and always enjoyed her job, which was only a 20-minute commute each day across the Mississippi border.

“I was aware it would be seen as a conflict of interest, but I am a woman of my word,” said Bell, who had worked at the facility for almost four years. “I wanted to do the best thing for Katie and her child.”

She said she was terminated on the spot.

The following day, May 17, Bourgeois gave birth to a seven-pound boy and named him Kayson.

Bourgeois was sent back to prison to complete the remaining two months of her sentence, which she was serving for using drugs while on parole, she said. She gave the hospital permission for Bell to get her son.

“I knew that Miss Bell really cared, and that Kayson would be in good hands,” she said, adding that she wasn’t allowed to see or talk to Bell.

Once Bell got a call and was told that she could pick up the baby, she raced over to the hospital, filled out paperwork and showed the hospital her identification. Once everything was verified, she scooped up Kayson, buckled him into the new car seat she had bought and took him home.

She also had loaded up on diapers, wipes and baby outfits. Some of the other corrections workers at the facility brought her a bassinet for him to sleep in.

About 700 women were incarcerated at the transitional prison, said Bell, adding that she learned to feel compassion for them while she worked there.

“So many of them have been used and abused and have had hard lives on the streets,” she said. “I found that if I showed them a little love, it went a long way. I sensed that Katie was a good person who had just made some bad choices in her life.”

About 58,000 pregnant women are incarcerated every year, according to a 2017 study done by the Pregnancy in Prison Statistics Project. Bell said that by helping Bourgeois, she hoped to give her some solid reasons to rebuild her life and find new purpose.

“I do know one thing – she has a beautiful little boy,” said Bell.

“He’s a good little boy who doesn’t cry much,” said Bell, noting that she spent weeks feeding Kayson every 2 to 4 hours.

When Bourgeois was released from prison on the Fourth of July, “it was further confirmation that I’d done the best thing for them both,” said Bell, 58.

She was waiting for Bourgeois in the prison parking lot that day to pick her up.

She said she couldn’t wait to show her how much Kayson had grown.

Mother and son are staying with Bell at her home in Vicksburg, Miss., until Bourgeois can find employment and save enough to live on her own, she said, adding that Bourgeois is considering becoming a hairstylist.

“She and Kayson are welcome to stay here for as long as they need to,” said Bell, who also looks after her grandchildren every summer. “I’m excited for Katie and what the future holds for her.”

Bell said she recently obtained a job helping one of her neighbors care for an elderly parent for eight hours a day while she considers future employment options.

“Losing my job has been hard – my kids have been helping me out,” she said.

She said she is reminded that she did the right thing every time she holds Kayson.

“To see his little face and his smile – it was just a joy,” she said. “And now, to watch Katie with him and see all of that love and the promise of a new beginning has made it all worthwhile.”

Bell said her dream is to start a group home for women who have recently been released from prison and have no place to go. Bourgeois said she would help.

“How can I thank this woman? She’s a stranger who showed so much love,” Bourgeois said. “If not for this angel, I don’t know what I would have done. I feel like I’ve found a friend forever in Miss Bell.”