OP-ED: Parenting From Prison

Hands on prison bars

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By Troy Williams

Parenting from prison is not easy, but it must be done.

Tens of thousands of incarcerated men and women throughout the United States have come to realize secondary consequences of participating in crime. As a result of our actions, our children are left with the stigma of having their parent labeled a criminal and taken away for what seems like forever.

And while there are some ways to mitigate some of the damage, it is almost impossible to escape the consequences that incarceration will have on our relationship with our children.

The first three years of my incarceration, my eldest child had no less than 25 different addresses, and we struggled to keep in contact.

I was very open and honest about my mistakes, and she was very open and honest about her challenges. She told me everything, from her daily frustrations to her first boyfriend. Our bond was unbreakable.

Year after year, my children would ask, “Daddy, when are you coming home?”

Unfortunately, when serving a life sentence you don’t have answers to questions like this. After a while they stopped asking, and at one point began to question whether I was ever going to tell them.

On one hand, it was hard for them to grasp the truth of their daddy/hero not having an answer to what seemed like such a simple question.

On the other hand, their adolescent minds did not understand the complexity of the answer: “I don’t know. It depends. I have to go to the Board of Prison Hearings. If they find me suitable, the governor will have to review, and then…”

As the years went by, a sense of mistrust began to grow and a subtle disconnect slowly began to wedge between our once impenetrable bond. No matter how many letters I wrote, no matter how much I said I love you, I simply wasn’t there and I couldn’t tell them when I would be there.

I watched helplessly as my absence affected them in different ways. Like mollusk, they each put on different shells in order to protect the soft interior of their hearts. Their questions about when I was coming home turned to, “Why won’t they let you out?”

In part, they were frustrated by their perceived injustice of the system and in part, they questioned my responsibility.

Like Richard Johnson, I realized that incarceration “can never be an excuse not to do your upmost to help raise your offspring as best as possible under seemingly impossible conditions.”

I wrote letters even when none were returned. I sent birthday cards, Christmas cards, Valentine’s Day cards, and apologized a thousand times.

I wanted to prevent them from developing abandonment issues. But even with all that, the truth is I wasn’t there. I know I could have and should have done more. So, I called my daughter and asked.

Her response, “That’s a good question. The only thing I can think of is – maybe you should have never gotten locked up in the first place.”

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