Creative Commons License

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

Photo collage of Chanell Burnette and her sons
Photo courtesy of JaJuan Burnette

Before February of this year, the last time I saw my older son, he was already taller than me and so handsome. When I became incarcerated, my two children were only 3 years and 6 months old. Now they are men.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down visitation at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, where I had been residing. This November, I moved to the Virginia Correctional Center for Women (VCCW). I only recently saw my family for the first since the pandemic began.

But family visitation in Virginia remains complicated. COVID-19 restrictions have not yet completely been lifted. And in a 2019 effort to crack down on the influx of contraband, the Virginia Department of Corrections limited the number of visits prisoners can receive. (According to reporting by the Virginia Mercury, drugs smuggled in by visitors accounts for only a small amount of what’s available inside prisons.)

Visitors are stymied in other ways, too. The process to apply to visit a loved one inside is long and involved — it takes about 45 days to process an in-state application — and the website to schedule visits is cumbersome. When our friends and family do finally manage to get here, other challenges await. In my facility, we are not allowed to hold small children. When my mother recently visited me with my brand new grandson, I could hardly touch him. There was no designated playroom available for him to play, and we could not buy snacks from the vending machine.

My last in-person visit with my family was in February of this year. Before that, I had not seen them since February 2019, three months before my oldest turned 18, on account of both prison restrictions and logistical issues related to my family. My mother wanted to be sure I saw him before he would need to apply to visit me as an adult, which can be a lengthy process.

Before the pandemic, many of the visits with my family had been organized by the Virginia-based organization Mothers Inside Loving Kids (MILK), which was originally started by incarcerated women. The program no longer operates at Fluvanna or VCCW, but my membership and participation helped motivate me to become a better mother. Researchers found that it helped other mothers too.

Those of us involved in MILK would meet weekly to learn about parenting, share ideas and prepare for special visits with kids. It always provided incentive for my doing the right thing; I never wanted to be removed from the program and disappoint my children or loved ones.

Upon my arrival to prison, I was devastated and utterly lost as to how I would survive being separated from my children. How could I go on without them when they were the sole reason for my heartbeat? Fortunately, MILK helped me learn how to parent effectively from the inside.

It has been painful not being able to see them these last few years, but they have stayed by my side throughout my entire incarceration. And I have tried my best to be a good parent. Letters to schools about my kids’ grades, good relationships and communication with their caregivers, and sending simple handmade cards and gifts are all ways in which I’ve tried to show my children how much they are loved, adored and deeply missed. 

I have also written to my boys every single week for 15 years. I know many of these notes may not have been read, but that will never stop me from sending them. Older prisoners, who watched their children reach adulthood while they’ve been incarcerated, have told me that my children will appreciate the effort and dedication as they grow older.

On Mother’s Day this year I wrote to them: “Each person in this life reaches a critical point where personal growth is essential. This journey was just that for me. However, as a mother, it is my duty to ensure that neither of you two follow these same steps into a destination of such adverse magnitude. I never want for either of you to experience the harsh realities that await people behind these walls. So I will do my best to prevent this from happening. This is not the future I envision for you two.”

I landed in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.I can handle the one year I have left, when I will finally be free. I am prepared. I have lived through unbearable stretches of time trapped inside of these walls, when my children faced enormous difficulty. When my son was in juvie, a sense of profound helplessness set in. The deepest despair a mother can face is knowing that her child needs her and that there is nothing she can do to help. But I endured, and with my help so did he. What I hope for him and his brother is that they deal with their emotions in a healthy way. Keeping them pent up inside only causes pain and frustration, which can lead to toxic outbursts.

During the last series of visits through MILK in 2018, we were allowed six all-day, in-person visits with our loved ones in which we played games, made crafts and ate together. We had so much fun enjoying one another’s company and basking in the warm spirit of Christmas. There was a real sense of home and family. 

Prior to the visit, we moms had decorated the visitation room with all the Christmas decor we had created. We had a real tree with a homemade fireplace, and even a sleigh! Many of us took our pictures in front of these festive decorations.

We also made gifts for our children: painted T-shirts, socks and special hair accessories. The prison administration came and sorted through our belongings and gave us approval to take them into the visitation room, where we placed the gifts under the tree before our families arrived. When it was time, we all sat in a circle and presented the gifts to our children just as we would at home on Christmas morning.

When the children opened their presents, the smiles on their faces were priceless. They were definitely not expecting that celebration. Many tears were shed. Tears of excitement, happiness and joy. Tears of pain and a deep sense of longing for home, rooted in family traditions and love.

I think visitation with children should be easier for all of us except those who have committed sexual crimes against children and may still remain a threat.  

It’s a shame that MILK has gone dormant, and if I had a magic wand I’d bring it back instantly. (When asked about its status, a VADOC spokesperson simply said, “MILK is still a program but delivery was greatly impacted by COVID.”) I’d make it easier for loved ones to visit, and for people inside to spend quality time with friends and family who make the trip to the facility. While I will soon be with my children on the outside, my heart breaks for all the mothers who remain inside, locked away from their families.

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.