If you’re reading this article from prison, you probably didn’t find it yourself. You didn’t search with keywords “parenting from prison” on your own. Someone else, perhaps a caregiver for your child or a professional connected to your case saw the article, knew you were parenting from prison, and sent it to you.
If you’re in prison in the United States, you are one of the more than 2 million adults or juveniles incarcerated by the U.S. prison system. And as a prisoner, you probably don’t have internet access, and any contact you do have with your family is limited to snail mail, occasional phone calls, periodic visits, and if you’re lucky censured emails..
If you’re parenting from prison, no doubt you will miss key life events in your child’s life. You won’t be home to pack lunches, to hear the day-to-day stories, to brush her hair, to kiss him goodnight. And that absence is devastating to you, and to your child.
According to the Urban Institute, your child is one of the nearly 10 million children nationwide who has a parent who is or was incarcerated. And the separation has devastating consequences on you child’s emotional and cognitive development.
Children with one incarcerated parent tend to suffer from separation anxiety, household instability, financial need, antisocial behaviors, feelings of isolation, shame, and stigmatization.
These kids, according to a report by the Department of Health & Human Services, have greater chance of getting involved in drug abuse or illegal activities. And these children “are twice as likely as other children to be involved in state services, such as TANF, mental health services and child protective services (Washington State Department of Social and Health Services 2008).”
Bottom line, a child whose parent/child relationship is severed because of incarceration suffers because he or she doesn’t have access to the incarcerated parent.
But your influence does matter even from prison. If you are parenting from prison, you are still a mentor for your child. And there are ways you can you can mitigate the impact of incarceration on your child even if access is limited.
So this is where you have a choice. You can choose to do nothing, to avoid contact with your child. Or, you can take measures to improve yourself and to maintain a presence in your child’s life.
Ways You Can Improve Yourself
Narrative Writing Courses and the Arts: Did you know that some of the most famous authors served time in prison and wrote while incarcerated? O’Henry wrote 14 short stories while imprisoned for embezzlement. E.E. Cummings, author of Winnie the Pooh wrote an autobiographical novel while imprisoned in a French prison during WWI. Some reported that writing alleviated the boredom, kept sanity at bay. Others wrote because the isolation served as material for countless stories.
You should write. Write letters. Religiously write in a journal ten minutes every day. Don’t have a paper? Write on toilet paper (no joke). Writing is a form of expressive language and research shows that writing especially narrative writing where you talk about your own stories, can do much to reduce stress, mood disorders, depression, despair, and boredom. Expressive writing helps us to make sense of the world, of our own emotions and our actions. It can help us with old traumas.
For some prisoners, writing a personal narrative (even through poetry) provided a sense of meaning. Life mattered. Their stories mattered and one day their stories would serve as a legacy for others. Most of all, writing gives prisoners a voice, a means by which to feel heard. Organizations such as PEN America Center help prisoners throughout the U.S. prison system with their prison writing programs, mentoring programs, and contests. operate Prison Writing programs and contests and offer free mentoring for prisoners who wish for editorial instruction. In addition writing, many prisons offer arts programs, theatre, and bring in volunteer troupes or teachers who work with prisoners at no cost. Like narrative writing, any participation in the arts reduces boredom, improves quality of prison life, and has therapeutic benefits.
Parenting Skill Programs: A variety of parenting programs are offered by or sponsored by the U.S. prison system. Parenting Inside Out is a parenting skills training program developed for criminal justice involved parents. The program is for incarcerated mothers and fathers who parent from prison. In addition, there’s a community version for parents once they leave the prison system. The program been effective at reducing recidivism and improves parenting skills and family relationships.
Continuing Your Education: Budgets have been cut throughout the prison system. But some states still allow prisoners to pursue college degrees or allow continuing adult education. One university, ASU offers online courses and workshops designed specifically for the prison community. In New York State, Governor Mario Cuomo is talking about free education for prisoners. Learning isn’t just beneficial to parents on the outside; it’s particularly important for incarcerated parents. It expands the imagination. It adds value and improves self esteem. And for parents in prison, it can make one more marketable after release from prison.
Therapy: Most prisons offer individual and group therapy. Therapy helps one develop greater self awareness. And like parenting programs, it helps to talk to other parents going through the same experiences in prison.
Meditation and Exercise: Meditation and exercise can improve concentration, sleep, can reduce stress and anxiety, and outlook. Many prisons bring in yoga and meditation coaches and offer classes to inmate.
Ways You Can Support and Parent Your Child
Recommend educational videos and guides for your spouse, partner, or your child’s caregiver. Sesame Street has a program series called “Little Children Big Problems–Incarceration.” The series, which covers a variety of topics including divorce, illness, and death provides videos, scripts, advice, resources, and toolkits for caregivers. It also has a series of videos geared to a child’s mental state and helps to validate feelings a child might experience when their parent is incarcerated.
Be honest with your child. Tell them in age-appropriate language why you’re in prison and that it’s not their fault. When a parent is incarcerated, children might feel a sense of guilt or responsibility, as if they caused the incarceration. It’s important to share with your child why you’re in prison, what you did, and what the consequence is. It’s also important that children understand there are choices–good choices and bad. By being honest, your child can feel a sense of connection because you opened up and shared something personal with them.
Validate your child’s feelings. Help your child to process his or her feelings. When a parent goes to prison, it’s a traumatic loss like a death. All of sudden, mom or dad is no longer available. They’re not here when a child is scared, no longer here to provide comfort or care. Your child can vent to a caregiver but it also helps if you encourage your child to speak freely about his or her feelings in letters, in televised visits, or through writings.
Encourage your children to talk: Children can benefit from expressive writing and the arts. Encourage your child to write letters, to keep a journal. Ask them for drawings or ask a caregiver or your spouse to encourage your child to draw.
Look into televised visits. Parents in prison need support. Parenting from prison provides many challenges and frustrations. Time marches on. The incarcerated parent misses key life events–birthdays, graduations, school plays, and proms. A parenting support group can help an incarcerated parent process feelings of loss, shame, grief, and anger. It can also offer constructive ideas for maintaining a parent/child relationship.
Seek out parenting events. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the prison system provides opportunities for healthy bonding with children and families. Not only is it important for the children; it’s important for the parent in prison. It connects them to the outside, to loved ones, and gives them a positive focus, a reason to get through the incarceration. It also helps parents in prison practice some of the parenting skills they might learn in parenting support groups. An increasing number of prisons offers on-site events, family events, and even family weekends and sleepovers.
Maintain a level of involvement: Depending on the prison and level of security, parents in prison can maintain some involvement in their childrens’ lives. Prisons offer televisiting where parents in prison can visit remotely. Some prison will allow parents to be involved in parent/teacher communication. At one maximum-security prison in New York State for woman, mothers have some opportunity to participate in parent/teacher conferences, to talk with their children about homework, school problems, and upcoming events. The child feels less alone knowing that their parent in prison has a level of involvement and interest in their lives.
Incarceration doesn’t have to signal the end of a parent/child relationship. It is possible to parent from prison and without a question, you are a mentor for your child. You can influence your child, encourage them, teach them right from wrong. You can make them feel that they matter. Most importantly, you can mitigate the negative effects of incarceration and prevent your child from reproducing the patterns and behaviors that lead to criminal activity.