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When a mother fails, a child cries. Whether silently inside or openly and outwardly, the child suffers. Right now, my child is suffering as a result of my absence in his life, and I feel like an epic failure.

As my child sits in his jail cell, I sit in my prison cell. He is scared for his future, and I’m ashamed of my past. He is thinking of what he could have done right, and I’m thinking of all the things I have done wrong. Our thoughts are mirrored as we reflect on opposite sides of the wall.

I don’t know what judgment may befall my son and whether he will be treated fairly or unjustly. What I do know is that he is sitting alone in a cell because of my bad judgment. Although he is an adult, I cannot escape the thought that maybe things would be different if I had been there to raise him.

When you’re a mother trapped on the inside of these walls and your child faces a dilemma of any kind, a sense of helplessness sets in. The deepest despair a mother can ever face is knowing that her child needs her and that there is nothing she can do to help. That is the single and absolute worst feeling one could ever experience.

My tears stream as I write from the pain in my heart, the ache in my soul for my child. If I could switch places with him and suffer what awaits him, I would. To let him go free to live his young life, I would serve day after day as I have already served 16 years. I know this life, and he does not. Nor should he ever have to know it. Unfortunately, we must each face the consequences of our actions.

My son has advantages in this dilemma, though, in that he is highly intelligent and wise beyond his years. He also has insight from me, someone who has sadly lived this prison life for most of his existence. Who better to guide him should he be led to make the same journey?

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.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.