Parenting From Prison: It’s Not Impossible

If you’re reading this article from prison, you probably didn’t find it on your own. That’s because, as a prisoner, you’d have limited access to the internet. More likely, someone else, perhaps a caregiver for your child or a professional connected to your case, saw the article, knew you were parenting from prison, printed it out, and sent it to you.

In the United States, some 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. With little to no internet access, an inmate’s communication with family members is limited to snail mail, occasional phone calls, periodic visits, and if you’re lucky, censored emails.

Parenting from prison, thanks to this reality, means missing many of the key events in the life of your child. You won’t be home to pack lunches, hear day-to-day stories, brush her hair, or kiss him goodnight. And of course, your absence is devastating to both you and your child.

Your child, of course, is not alone, because he or she is one of more than 5 million children nationwide who has a parent who is or was incarcerated. And there is no doubt that the separation between you and your child has devastating consequences on your child’s emotional and cognitive development. Children with incarcerated parents 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 a higher risk for drug abuse or getting involved in illegal activities. They’re also  twice as likely as other children to need state services, such as TANF, mental health services, and child protective services, too. The bottom line, is that a child whose parent/child relationship is severed because of incarceration, suffers because he or she has no 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 mitigate the impact of incarceration on your child even with limited access.

So this is where you have a choice. You can choose to do nothing about these limitations, stay out of contact, and become a myth to your child. Or, you can take measures to improve yourself and remain a presence in your child’s life.

Steps To Self-Improvement

Narrative Writing Courses and the Arts: Did you know that some of the most famous authors served time in prison, writing while incarcerated? O’Henry wrote 14 short stories while imprisoned for embezzlement. The poet E.E. Cummings wrote an autobiographical novel while imprisoned in a French prison during WWI. Some writers wrote to alleviate the boredom, others to  keep insanity at bay. Still 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 paper? Write on toilet paper (no joke).

Writing is a form of expressive language and research shows that writing may help people cope with emotional fallout after a traumatic event. Being arrested and incarcerated would certainly qualify as traumatic events. That’s without taking into account the reason for incarceration! Expressive writing helps us make sense of the world, of our own emotions, and our actions.

For some prisoners, expressive writing can provide a sense of meaning. Life matters. Their stories matter and one day their stories will serve as a legacy for others. Writing gives prisoners a voice, a means to be heard.

Organizations such as PEN America provide prisoners throughout the U.S. prison system with prison writing and writing mentoring programs. In addition to writing programs, many prisons offer art and theater programs. Some prisons bring in volunteers to work with prisoners in arts programs at no cost. Like expressive writing, 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 or sponsored by the U.S. prison system. Parenting Inside Out, for instance, is a parenting skills training program developed for parents in the criminal justice system. This program is for incarcerated mothers and fathers who parent from prison. There’s a community version of the program to help parents once they leave the prison system. The program has been effective in reducing recidivism and has been shown to improve 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 continuing adult education. One university, ASU, offers online courses and workshops designed specifically for the prison community. In 2017, in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo found a creative way to finance free education to prisoners in 17 prisons to the tune of $7m.

Learning isn’t only beneficial to parents on the outside; it’s of particular importance to incarcerated parents. Studying expands the imagination. Academic work adds value and improves self esteem. And for incarcerated parents, earning a degree 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, group therapy helps by giving you a chance to talk to other parents going through the same experiences in prison.

Meditation and Exercise: Meditation and exercise can reduce stress and anxiety and may also improve your concentration, the quality of your sleep, and your general outlook. Many prisons bring in yoga and meditation coaches and offer classes to inmates.

Ways You Can Support and Parent Your Child

Recommend educational videos and guides to your spouse, partner, or your child’s caregiver. Sesame Street in Communities offers lots of resources for children of incarcerated family members and for those who are parenting from prison. Among the resources are a video on visiting a parent in prison, and reading material you can print out to read during a visit. The materials provided here are geared to a child’s mental state and helps to validate feelings a child might experience when a parent is incarcerated.

Be honest with your child. When a parent is incarcerated, children can feel a sense of guilt or responsibility, as if they caused the incarceration. Tell them in age-appropriate language why you’re in prison and that it’s not their fault. It’s important to share with your child why you’re in prison, what you did, and what the consequences are. It’s also important that children understand there are choices–good choices and bad ones, too. By being honest, you offer your child a way to feel a sense of connection with you. That’s because you opened up and shared something personal.

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 a sudden, mom or dad is no longer available. They’re not there when the child is scared, no longer there 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 to you in letters, phone calls, and televised visits.

Encourage your children to find a means of self-expression: Children can benefit from expressive writing and the arts. Encourage your child to write stories and keep a journal. Ask your child 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 comes with many challenges and frustrations. One of the most difficult issues is the way that 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. A prison support group for parents can also offer constructive ideas for maintaining the parent/child relationship.

Seek out parenting events and programs. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does provide some opportunities for healthy bonding with children and families. An example is the Mommy and Me Tea event held in the Federal Prison Camp (FPC) at Danbury, Connecticut. Another example includes the various programs that help mothers stay with their young children inside prison, for instance Mothers and Infants Together (MINT) and the Residential Parenting Program (RPP). Not only are these events and programs important for the children; they are important for the parent in prison. Parent-focused events and programs help connect prisoners to the outside, to their loved ones, and gives them a positive focus, a reason to get through the incarceration. Such parenting opportunities also help parents in prison practice some of the parenting skills they learn in parenting support groups in prison. An increasing number of prisons offer onsite parenting 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 children’s lives. Prisons may offer “televisits” where parents in prison can visit remotely. Some prisons will allow parents to stay involved with a child’s schoolwork through parent/teacher communication. At one maximum-security prison for women in New York State, mothers have can participate in parent/teacher conferences and talk with their children about homework, school problems, and upcoming school events. Children feel less alone knowing that their parents in prison are involved and interested in their lives.

Incarceration doesn’t have to signal the end of the parent/child relationship. It is possible to parent from prison, and there is no question that you are a mentor to your child. You can influence, offer encouragement, and teach your child right from wrong. It is still possible for you to make your child feel that s/he matters. Most importantly, you can lessen the negative effects of incarceration and help keep your child from repeating the patterns and behaviors that can lead to criminal activity.

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published Jan 23, 2015 and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.

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