Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Parenting from prison, just like the free world, must be a selfless act. It must be grounded in truth, especially for someone who is absent for most of their child’s life. There is no room to lie to your child, because you have to brace them for the inevitable — that you are in prison. 

The toughest question, “What did you do?” is coming. The answer must be age-appropriate. When my youngest son was six years old, I had to explain that his daddy was in a gang and hurt a lot of people. He responded, “Daddy, you are a bad man.” My heart dropped, but I had to smile as I thought, “Ok, my son knows not to be a bad man.” I understood that it was up to me to save him from a life of prison. 

He had to process this information. I had to reinforce in him that he was not made from the bad parts of me, but the best parts of me. You have to instill in them early their individuality, to combat their fears and tell them that they are not bad, too. As a parent, you worry that your child will be stigmatized because of your actions. 

“Kids are also doing the time with you, and they will need a coping mechanism to help them deal with the stress.”

You worry about their mental health, and how they’ll deal with abandonment. Once my son got a little older, I had to tell him that I was convicted of murder. 

And then came the next hard question, “When are you coming home?” There is no real answer when someone is serving a life sentence. As a parent, you don’t want to dash your children’s hopes, but you also want them to be realistic. 

You have to explain to them that you’ll have to go before a parole board who will be the ones to determine whether or not you are suitable to return home. This is another delicate matter, as you don’t want your child to hate the people on the parole board should you be denied. Nor do you want them to resent you for not receiving a release date. 

As the years pass, your kids will go through a lifetime of emotions. Anger, depression, self-doubt, wondering if they are “good enough,” as you have missed their birthdays, their first days of school, their graduations. 

Sadly, they will always feel like they are alone, even when they are surrounded by other family members who love them. As a parent inside, you are not the disciplinarian. You have to be their best friend, there has to be that space for them to open up to you, even if it means hearing things you don’t like. Your role in their lives will take many turns, and sometimes they may not want to talk to you, believing that because of your own situation you won’t be able to help them. 

What I have learned is that you must stay consistent in their lives, no matter the circumstance. If they don’t write, you write to them. If they will only talk to you for five minutes of your 15-minute phone call, you have to accept that. In-person visits are the best way to connect with your child, but they are also the most painful, physically leaving when it’s time to go. 

I see kids throw fits, wanting to run back into the housing unit with their incarcerated parent. It’s heartbreaking, but you must prepare them to be strong. Kids are also doing the time with you, and they will need a coping mechanism to help them deal with the stress. Sometimes, for some kids, it will be easier for them to forget about the incarcerated parent. 

The toughest thing about parenting from inside is knowing that when something bad happens to your child, and it will, you are helpless. My oldest son was stabbed and partly paralyzed by another gang member, leaving him with a permanent limp. I was devastated, hurt and angry, probably the same feelings my victim’s family felt towards me. Now my own son was a victim of a crime that could have cost him his life. 

Eventually, the perpetrator was arrested and sent to prison. My family didn’t want to tell me what happened in fear that I may retaliate, and my son said, “I don’t want you to do nothing, Dad. I just want you home.”  I cried, realizing my son had become a man. 

I have known men inside whose sons were on the same prison yard with them. I have seen kids grow up in visiting rooms, and I have watched different families band together to form support systems for one another. As an inside parent, your main job is to minimize your child’s trauma and love them through any means you have. 

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.

Marcus "Wali" Henderson is the former editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He became a reporter the day he arrived at San Quentin.