"I was basically a crackhead," Phelan said. "I literally was getting arrested every other week. I got pregnant by a drug dealer. ... I was seven months pregnant, and I was still smoking crack."
When she finally gave birth to her daughter, Phelan was behind bars, serving a 90-day jail sentence for possessing crack cocaine, violating her probation.
It was a wake-up call.
"That was the most traumatizing experience of my life," Phelan said. "To go see my beautiful, healthy baby girl in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs and shackles ... I was embarrassed that was the way I brought her into this world.
"I knew I was changing my life. I just didn't know how I was going to change my life."
Fortunately, Phelan connected with Hour Children, a nonprofit that reaches out to convicted mothers at five correctional facilities in New York. Now, at 38, she says she is drug-free, has a job she loves and is raising her daughter in an apartment of her own.
"When you see what (these women) can do with support and love and education, it's miraculous, really," said Sister Teresa Fitzgerald, who founded Hour Children. "They don't believe in a future and are hung up on the mistakes of their life. And life is not about a mistake. We all get a gift of life, and we have to live it."
Over the past 25 years, Fitzgerald's group has provided life-changing assistance to more than 9,000 mothers both behind and beyond bars. Its goal is to reintegrate former inmates into society by helping them with common post-release stumbling blocks, such as reuniting families and finding safe, affordable housing. It also provides the women with free counseling, education and employment support.
"Everybody loves children, and they're an easy sell," Fitzgerald said. "But the mothers, for many of them, their lives were so horrific growing up, and they didn't have what children deserve. They ended up on the negative side of life.