She risked her job to care for an incarcerated woman’s newborn. Now she wants to start a center to help others in need.

Published 9:35 am Saturday, August 12, 2023

By Adria R. Walker, Mississippi Today 

Roberta Bell, a 58-year-old grandmother who lives in Vicksburg, was fired from her job as a women’s correctional officer at the Louisiana Transition Center for Women because she agreed to raise the baby of a pregnant woman jailed at her workplace.

Katie Bourgeois was set to give birth before her sentence ended, and Bell, recognizing that Bourgeois was trying to turn her life around, didn’t think it was right that the baby would be turned over to CPS and potentially forever lost to its mother.

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Now, about two months after the baby was born and Bell cared for it in its first few weeks of life, the child and mother are reunited after Bourgeois was released from prison.

And Bell, who sacrificed her job and her own financial livelihood to raise a baby who was not her own, wants to use the experience to help others in need.

‘I’m going to get that baby’

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Bell was living in Jackson. It was a difficult and chaotic time for the mother of three. Her father was ill and her mother was struggling as his primary caregiver.

Most days, Bell drove from Jackson to Vicksburg, picking up her parents and driving them back to Jackson for doctor’s appointments before driving them home to Vicksburg and then returning home to Jackson herself.

She knew she needed to find a job closer to home, so she took her daughter’s advice and applied for a job at the Madison Parish LTCW, also known as the Louisiana Transitional Center for Women, across the Mississippi River. She was hired not too long afterwards.

Working at the prison not only helped alleviate some of Bell’s stress while helping care for her parents, but it allowed her to do something that has long been important to her: minister to incarcerated women.

“God had already tried to put on my heart to minister to women and to get them to know and start serving Christ,” she said. “Doing the right thing instead of doing the wrong thing. Once I got hired and I started working over there, I was ministering to the young ladies.”

Roberta Bell, 58, relaxing at her Warren County home with her grandchildren (from left), Jayden Cooper, 12, Caileb Cooper, 11, Tahari Bell, 13 and Demonie Bell, 9, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.

Unbeknownst to Bell, one of the incarcerated women in the facility was facing a serious problem: She would give birth before she was released from prison.

The woman, Katie Bourgeois, didn’t have many options. Her own mother was struggling through a divorce, so she didn’t think she would be able to get the baby. Without anyone else to help, Bourgeois knew her child would go into Child Protective Services, at which point she may never see her baby again. She anguished over what she could do, talking to some of the other women in the facility about her situation.

Then some of the other women in the facility had an idea: “Mama Bell,” as they called her, should take the baby.

Bell happened to be standing on the walk when the women arrived at this conclusion. One woman noticed Bell and called out to her.

“She said, ‘Ms. Bell, Ms. Bell! You’ll keep her baby for her, won’t you, Ms. Bell? Won’t you keep her baby? She just doesn’t want her baby to go to CPS,’” Bell recalled.

On a whim, Bell agreed to keep the baby, not realizing that they were serious about asking her to do so or that the woman legitimately did not have anyone to help out. But when she later realized the seriousness of the question, Bell’s answer remained the same: she would take care of the baby.

Bell talked to Bourgeois, who was at the time about five-and-a-half months pregnant, to learn more details about her release and to confirm she truly wanted Bell to keep her baby. Immediately after talking to Bourgeois, Bell said she met with her commanding officer. Gossip travels quickly at the facility, and Bell didn’t want her supervisor to find out about the situation from someone else before hearing about it from her.

“I told him that I didn’t want to do anything against the policy and procedures,” Bell said. “(I said), ‘I want to come to you and let you know that I don’t want to see this child’s baby go to CPS.’”

She says the officer told her that it was “a sad situation,” and that he’d get back to her about it. Bell recalled that at least three months passed between the time Bell spoke with her supervisor and Bourgeois gave birth. As time passed, she heard nothing else about it from the officer — Bell thinks that, with everything happening at the facility, the officer forgot about Bourgeois and her baby. She decided to ask a maintenance worker to give her contact information to the owner of the prison, so that she could talk to him about the situation before going ahead on her own. She says the owner never responded to her or called her.

In the meantime, Bourgeois’ pregnancy continued. When it was almost time for her to deliver, she told Bell that she had to give her contact information to the hospital in order for them to allow her to leave with the baby.

Bell gave her information to Bourgeois. She’s not exactly sure who is responsible for what happened next, but Bell says it transpired like this: On Mother’s Day weekend, Bell was enjoying a rare day off. While she was away, prison authorities authorized a shake down of Bourgeois’ room. They found Bell’s information among Bourgeois’ belongings. Afterwards, the commanding officer told Bell that he wanted to see her. Bell says she received a call from an anonymous woman with a New Orleans area code who warned her about her information being found during the shake down.

“I told her, ‘I’m not worried about that. I can handle what I’ve done. It’s not secret because the major already knew… he knew I was thinking about trying to get the baby,’” she said.

When she arrived at work, she was told to stay in the lobby instead of proceeding through to the prison. The commanding officer told her that he was aware she had released her information to an inmate and that, in doing so, she had violated prison rules. Bell says she explained that she did so because the hospital needed the information, not because she wanted Bourgeois to have it for personal use.

Bell says the officer doubled down, saying that it was a violation regardless. She told him that she understood and was prepared to accept the consequences. Bell assumed she would be disciplined in some way, but she was not prepared for the end of the conversation. The officer  asked her if she intended on still going through with receiving the baby.

“I said, ‘Major, if the hospital calls me to come get that baby, I’m going to get that baby because I gave her my word,’” she said.

Bell says the officer terminated her on the spot and she left. The interaction took place days before Bourgeois was scheduled to deliver, despite the facility knowing Bell’s plans for months. Because of the delay in getting back to her, by the time the shake down occurred, it would have been too late for Bourgeois and Bell to figure out an alternative to Bell taking the baby.

“It’s a difference if you want your baby and you want to take care of your baby than if you don’t want your baby and you don’t mind somebody else taking care of it,” Bell said. “She’s really trying to turn her life around … I look at it as if you’re trying, you’re taking a step. Once you take a step, God moves on your behalf.”

Roberta Bell visiting with baby Kayson. Bell lost her job as a correctional officer after she volunteered to raise the baby during Katie Bourgeios’s incarceration.

Bell and her family believe she was targeted for trying to do the right thing. For three years, Bell went above the call of duty as a worker, her daughter Amesha West, said.

“My mom has missed so many birthday parties, family gatherings, holidays because she was dedicated to her job,” she said. “Some days my mom would go into work at two in the morning, get off at one in the evening. If no one showed up on the second shift once she made it home, she’d literally put the uniform back on and drive back across the river to Tallulah.”

Bell says she loved her job because it allowed her to “give God glory to be able to spread his love throughout that prison system.”

Madison Parish LTCW declined to comment.

‘I wouldn’t give it up for nothing’

Though talking about her former job still causes her pain, Bell lights up when talking about raising Kayson.

“I love him as if he’s my own grandbaby,” she said.

Kayson was immediately absorbed into Bell’s family. West and her husband drove from Jackson to help take care of the baby. West’s son, Kason, particularly took to the newborn, with whom he shares a name, while Bell’s other grandchildren were also eager to help. Bell’s ex-husband, along with her siblings and other children, also helped out with the baby.

Raising a newborn can be difficult at any stage, but especially when dealing with unemployment. The family started a GoFundMe to help with expenses and an Amazon wish list to help with items. Since Kayson’s birth, Bell says that she has been “overwhelmed” by how her community, friends and family have supported her, gifting her diapers, baby bathtubs and other items.

“It’s just been tremendously a blessing, and I thank God for them,” she said. “I’m barely making it myself. I don’t make no money, and I’m here trying to maintain my bills the best I know how.”

Roberta Bell, left, takes a photo with Katie Bourgeois and her son Kayson. (Photo courtesy Roberta Bell)

Bourgeois, in an interview with WLBT in early July shortly after she was released, said she planned to focus on finding a job and embrace her new role as a mother.

“I can’t thank (Bell) enough for everything she’s done. Kayson’s doing great,” Bourgeois said.

Since Bourgeois was reunited with her baby, she and Bell have not communicated very much and she has only seen Kayson in person once. After finding out Bourgeois was not allowed to cross state lines as a condition of her parole, Bell drove back to Vicksburg, loaded her car with items for the baby and drove back to Louisiana. Otherwise, she says that she has been sent a couple of photos of Kayson.

“(Katie) said that everything was good and fine there, so I didn’t push the issue,” Bell said. “I didn’t want her to feel like I was gone be mad or anything because that’s not the issue. The decision was hers and I have to accept that. I think about him all the time, he’s constantly on my mind. I think about him all the time … I don’t have any bad feelings about it. I just pray and hope that everything is still going good.”

Bell says that Bourgeois and her mother have invited her to visit whenever she is able to do so, but Bell’s time immediately post-Kayson was occupied with trying to find a new job and trying to open The Serenity Center, a recovery home for unhoused and formerly incarcerated women.

She hopes to open The Serenity Center before the year is out. Through the center, she plans to help secure safe and supportive housing for women who don’t have it. Through her daughter, Bell started a GoFundMe for the center. So far, she has raised nearly 30% of her goal.

More presently, though, she hopes that her situation will inspire others to do the same if they are in a position to help people, no matter the cost.

And even though it cost her her livelihood, Bell says she would make the decision to take Kayson again.

“I wouldn’t give it up for nothing because of the love that I want to spread abroad on this earth,” she said. “It’s the love that God wants us all to have. It’s a beautiful thing when you can love God and love all the people that come on your path whether they treat you good or not.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.