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One of the most challenging things I have ever had to do was to be a parent from behind prison walls. And not just any parent, but an effective parent. One who could set a positive example and be the type of role model that my children would take pride in following. 

It hasn’t always been easy but it can absolutely be done. My two children are living proof of that. Life is all about choice and our children need to see us making ones that are better than those that led us down the path to incarceration.

Being an incarcerated mother is one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. Incarceration, in itself, is enough of a challenge, and certainly something that no parent would ever want their children to have to endure. So, it is up to us to guide them in a direction opposite of the one we chose. 

Do they always listen and do what they know to be right? Not at all. But what is important is the fact they do make a conscious effort to do so. I know this because when they talk, I listen. What I did not know at first was that when I was talking, they were listening too. And now as I listen to them, I hear what I have taught them reflected back at me. And to me, there is nothing more rewarding than that.

Many things can lead a person to incarceration. It could be a lifestyle choice, a life or death situation, a one time bad choice, or even something someone had to do to escape poverty’s death. Whatever an individual’s situation, choice or mistake is, it is left up to us to try and show our children a different route. We never want to see our children make the same mistakes we did, but instead to learn from them and to make better choices than we did. 

The purpose of incarceration is reformation and rehabilitation. If that is not taken seriously, we leave out in the same condition in which we entered the system. Well then, this was all in vain. Why allow it to be if all we have is time? Time to reflect on what inevitably led us to prison in the first place. And time to grow and empower ourselves so that we will be ready and more than capable of making better decisions. Decisions that lead to a brighter future for you and your children. One secure with the promise of togetherness and creating new memories. 

Throughout my journey with incarceration, I have been an active member in a program here at the facility called Mothers Inside Loving Kids (MILK). This program has truly been a blessing to me and my family because it helped us to stay connected with one another in a way that would not have been possible if I had not been in the program.

The task of parenting successfully from within these walls can be done in many different ways. And whether we’re miles away from our children or not, there are still ways to remain close to them in heart. Though we are limited in many ways, we are not altogether helpless. There are things we can do. All that is needed is a little creativity on our behalf.

Letters to schools about our children’s grades, maintaining good relationships and communication with their caregivers and sending simple handmade cards and gifts are all good ways of staying connected. These are all examples of things that I have personally done to show my children how much they are loved, adored, and deeply missed. 

And even if incarcerated parents have infrequent visitation with our children, or no visitation at all, we should not hesitate to at least pick up a pen. During my 15-year period of incarceration, I have written to my boys every single week. Lots of letters and I know many may not have even been read. But that will never stop me from sending them each week. Whether they read them or not at the moment, they will appreciate the effort and dedication as they grow older. This bit of information was related to me by older inmates who watched their children reach adulthood during their incarceration. 

Believe it or not, our children save the letters that we write to them! Now, how sweet is that? If it is only one sheet of paper to share the words, “I love you,” that can make all the difference in the world to a child who is missing their mother just as much as we are missing them! It is so important to let them know just how much they are loved regardless of our current circumstances. 

It is also important to show them that it is not about how you fall, but how you get back up. Our mistakes and/or bad choices do not define us as individuals, and we must make this visible to them. How do we do this? By making wise use of our time during our incarceration and leading by example. Any negative situation can be turned into a positive one if the proper time and effort are invested. Our children need to see what we are doing behind these walls.

Many prisons offer a variety of classes, Some are educational courses, and some are self-help groups. What is important is the example we set for our children. Due to our past mistakes, we must work even harder to show them that much good can arise out of a bad situation. Any situation is the sum of what we make it. 

Are we being productive or are we wasting our time? Are we taking advantage of the opportunities provided for us or are we sitting around in a perpetual state of complacency and stagnation?

I will forever be grateful to Counselor Dunn and Girl Scouts of America for the opportunity to be a part of something so life-sustaining as MILK during my incarceration. My membership and participation in the MILK program helped to motivate me to become a better mother. In this program I learned how to parent effectively from the inside because, honestly, upon my arrival to prison, I was not only devastated, but completely and utterly lost about how I would make it through this time of separation from my children. 

I thought I would just die of a broken heart. Never had I ever been apart from my boys for any extended period of time. So for me to be snatched away so quickly, and for such a long period of time, I thought, for sure, that my heart would stop beating. How could it beat without my children when they’re the sole reason for my heartbeat? 

The good news is that, indeed, my heart did continue its beating and I am nearing the end of my journey, finally. I say that so incarcerated parents know that it is certainly possible to make it through to the other side and come out stronger, wiser, and better than ever before. I am not saying it will be easy and that there won’t be tears, because I have undeniably shed my fair share. Tears of sadness, desperation, helplessness, hopelessness and uncertainty of a potential outcome and yet: HERE I STILL STAND! 

My journey began in 2005 and instead of allowing it to break me, I turned it around into what would strengthen me. It is what would turn me into the mature woman and mother I am today and I am so grateful for this entire experience because it has shaped me into who I am. I can honestly admit that I do not know who, or where I would even be without it. 

Many may view their incarceration as a hindrance. I see it as a help! It is up to each of us to decide whether we choose to see a glass half empty or half full. If your children could observe your behavior as any given moment, which would you want them to see?

Not any one of my kids is the picture of perfection. But as a parent, it is my responsibility to shape and mold them into the best people they can be and help them live up to their potential. I strive to be the driving force behind all that my children do. and unbeknownst to them, they do the very same for me. It is my wish that they will do better and go further than I ever will. The sky’s the limit for our children. And, as parents, we must be the wind beneath their wings pushing them to soar to new heights.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Chanell Burnette

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.