ELLA Foundation Blog

How to Parent Your Child in Prison

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Love is a verb. It is something you sometimes have to choose to do even when it does not come automatically. When your child is arrested you feel a lot of things. Some feel an outpouring of love. Most feel some measure or shame, righteous indignation, and helplessness. Parenting is a challenge under any circumstances. When a child is arrested it can feel overwhelming and lonely. The ELLA Foundation is here to help you parent, cope, and help your child after an arrest.

This article is based on the experiences of Charity Lee, the founder and Executive Director of the ELLA Foundation. Charity's son Paris Lee Bennett was arrested in 2004 for the murder of his sister Ella. He is serving a 40 year prison sentence in Texas.

Parenting Your Child Immediately After He is Arrested

When your child is arrested, you feel your most powerless, but that is when you have to become powerful. The criminal justice system will do everything to make you and your child feel helpless. In truth, you probably have almost no legal rights in this process, but there is still a lot you can do.

Be There

After Paris was arrested I made it my business to be at the jail every day at 5:30 PM to visit him. There were times when I was not allowed to visit with him, but I know that being there made a difference in how he was treated. If you can afford a lawyer, that is even better. Either way, if you show up at the police station every day and show the police that there is someone who cares, your child has a much better chance to get better treatment. - Charity Lee, Executive Director of the ELLA Foundation

This is a response from a woman who was arrested about what she would have wanted from her parents:

I would've wished for a lawyer immediately, not having to wait till I got to court to be arraigned, but as soon as I was arrested. [I wish my parent would] Get my children right away so there is no chance of the state being involved their lives. Their [my parents'] presence at the police station, their constant presence- theirs and a lawyer present, so that the police know that I am NOT alone and unrepresented, reducing (probably only marginally) the risk of misconduct and brutality, false confession and the like.
- MC

Be as Nonjudgemental as Possible

The prison system dehumanizes people. A mother can see her child the way no one else can. Your child needs that and the police need that. They need to know that this person in jail is still loved and still a human being, not a number. Whether your child is innocent or not, he is more than the crime he committed. He needs to know that, and the police need to know that.

Being nonjudgemental is not the same as saying that what he did is not wrong, horrid, terrible, etc. It’s saying that your kid is more than the crime he’s accused of. It’s being there and being someone that sees him as someone who is loved. It's not beneficial to anyone to judge.

I used to say I had not idea how to mother, because I had a mother that was not so great at it. So, I know what not to do, and what I wished had been done for me. What I always really wanted was a mother who accepted me for who I am, how I am. That's what I try to be for Paris.
Nobody is ever going to not have an opinion. You have to be able to separate your thoughts from your actions. There were days when I just wanted to kill Paris. When things got really, really bad between us I would sit across the table from him and fantasize doing bodily harm to my child. And I realized, and I would tell him, "I really have to leave. I really want to hurt you right now. I want you to hurt as bad as I do right now, because I hurt. And I don't think that's how a parent is supposed to act towards their child so I'm walking away now, but I'll be back."
That changed because judging was not going to get Ella back, and it was not going to get Paris the help he needed. Your relationship with your child in jail might change too. Learning to love and be there without judgement is a gift you can grow into.
- Charity Lee,
Executive Director of the ELLA Foundation

Parenting Your Child Who is Going to be in Jail for Weeks, Months or Years

Paris was 13 years old when he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. It’s been 10 years now and he is now 23 years old. Here is a list of what every parent needs to do for her kids:

  • protect
  • educate
  • advocate
  • discipline
  • be steady / the rock / the foundation

Protect Your Child

A lot of awful things go on in prison. The wardens and guards are in charge and they really can do anything in the prison they want. If they know that someone cares about your child, your child is safer. Just being there on a regular basis can make a difference in the treatment your child will receive.

Educate Your Child

There are programs in many prisons that help inmates get a GRE and skills that will help them get jobs after they are released. This can be crucial for your child’s self-esteem and their eventual successful re-entry into society. This is from another person who responded to my post on social media:

My parents did all they needed to do and much more. They encouraged me to stay strong, to further my education, get involved in programs that would help me, the visited me all the time, put money on my books, put money on my phone acct, and most importantly, they prayed for me. They (my mother and father) did this for 11 + yrs till I came home. The key element in the success of my homecoming was putting God first in our lives. He did the rest. - RA

Advocate for Your Child

There are forms and paperwork you can file or help your child file for different purposes. These actions can be important and can make a big difference. Even if they don’t move the legal system, they can be a way for your child and the legal system to remember that someone on the outside cares about your him.

Discipline Your Child

The morals you expect from your child may be more than what's expected of him in jail. It doesn't mean that it's helpful to judge or criticize. However, it can be good to share things with your child that reinforce that you know he is more than the choice that brought him into this situation.

Be the Steady Foundation Your Child Needs

When Paris was arrested he entered into a world he was totally unprepared for. Prison is a totally different circumstance than your child has every experienced. Just showing up every day, or every week or as often as you can is a chance to be something consistent in his life. This can make a huge difference as well. 10 years after being arrested Paris has become a more consistent person. Charity showed him that she holds true to what she believes and what she said she would do.

Please Share

If your child has been arrested or if you have been arrested, please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Everyone’s experience is unique, but there is a lot we can do to help each other. That is what the ELLA Foundation is here for. Please share.

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Topics: Parenting, Parenting a child in prison, Prison