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What It’s Like to Parent From Behind Bars

I met Lisa at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility on an unseasonably warm, sunny November day. The first thing I noticed about the cement building was the vibe. The guard who checked me in seemed genuinely happy to be there.

Stacy, the prison librarian and my host for the morning, led me through a maze of locked hallways to meet Lisa, stopping intermittently to chat with colleagues and wave at inmates. Stacy later told me the facility prides itself on creating genuine opportunities for vocational training and rehabilitation.

I’m ashamed to admit that when Stacy left and shut the door behind her, I took a deep breath and tried to stop thinking about the possibility that Lisa was hiding a sharp object in her baggy prison uniform. I’d seen a few prison movies, after all.

Given the way Hollywood portrays sex, love, childbirth, and practically everything else, I should not have been surprised when Lisa bore little resemblance to the inmates in the movies.

Here’s what she had to say:

On ending up in prison

My mom passed away from lung cancer, and that was what brought me to a very dark place in my life. I was 16 at the time and had just given birth to my son, Michael. After that, I moved to Denver for a guy, who I had two kids with. It turned out to be a very bad, abusive relationship.

I came home from work early one day and found him cheating on me. I scooped up the kids, left the house, and stayed with friends. All the bank accounts were in his name. I had to literally start from scratch. After about four months couch surfing and hotel hopping, knowing that the kids could be home with Johnny, I was like, “I can’t do this to the kids anymore. I have to make a choice.”

I sent the kids back to stay with their father and stole a vehicle so I could sleep in it, which was a really hard decision. But when you’re homeless and dragging your kids around on the streets, you have to make that decision. A shelter wasn’t an option because I was employed at the time, and most shelters won’t take you if you’re employed. I was charged with aggravated motor vehicle theft.

Once I got to prison, Johnny (not being Michael’s dad) decided he didn’t want to be responsible for Michael. There was no family to take him, so I got charged with child abuse and neglect due to incarceration. I had no control over the situation, but that’s what DHS charged me with. They ended up sending him to a group home, which is typically a punishment.

On motherhood

I have a journal I plan to give each child that I write in every single day so that they’ll know they were in my heart every single day. I write how I feel, what I’m doing, what I wish I was doing with them at that moment. Maybe I had a dream about them. It’s always something positive.

I got approval from the courts to see my kids, but I haven’t seen them once. I thought the case manager or someone from the group home would bring Michael, but they won’t. I’ve heard a thousand excuses. And Johnny hasn’t answered a single call from me.

It’s really hard to parent from prison. You can say everything on the phone, but how do you enforce anything? My son Michael got in trouble. He threw a plastic stopwatch at a vehicle. It’s not appropriate and needs to be addressed, but it’s typical 13-year-old behavior.

In the group home, they came and they arrested him. They charged him with destruction of property, and he’s going to court for it. I didn’t find out about this until three weeks later. No case manager notified me. They don’t tell you anything.

I get a 15-minute phone call twice a week. That’s the maximum amount of time I’m allowed to be on the phone with my son. Pretty much on the phone, it’s just, “I love you,” or “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I get to hear your voice today,” or “How was your day?” That kind of stuff.

But he’ll share absolutely everything with me. We have a really amazing relationship. That’s one thing that makes the case managers really want to return custody to me.

On counseling

I’m all about counseling. A lot of people are like, “Ugh, I don’t want to go to counseling.” But there’s a counselor for everybody. I’m not saying every single counselor is right for every single person. You have to take the time to go through the process.

When my mom died, I smothered my son so badly because I was so worried about losing anyone else close to me. I really had a hard time letting him out of my sight. Slowly, after going through parenting programs and going to counseling, I realized he needs some room to breathe. I also realized I had a lot of grief I needed to address.

On addiction

After I left my kids with Johnny, I dove into methamphetamines. I never used heroin or any opiates, and I’m very thankful for that. But I struggled with meth really hard. I wasn’t an IV user. I smoked. And I turned to alcoholism. Then I beat the alcoholism but only by increasing my meth use.

I would not be high around my children. So when I came to visit my kids, I’d have to spend a week completely sobering up, and as soon as that visit with my kids was over, I’d get back to using again as quick as I could because that pain of not being able to take care of my kids…I just wanted to make that pain go away. It was really hard.

Now I know, I can go to AA or NA, and there’s no harm in saying, “Hi, I’m Lisa, I have these issues. It’s very nice to meet you. Let’s talk about our issues together.”

On the next leg of her journey

I just found out I’m getting out on parole five days before Christmas. I will have been here one-and-a-half years of my three-year sentence.

Initially, I didn’t know where I’d go when I got out because I’d lost touch with my family. After my mom died, one of my brothers committed suicide, and I just ran away.

But I got in touch with one of my brothers, and he said, “This is crazy, but Dad’s staying by himself because his wife just passed away, and he needs someone there to take care of him. I think that would be a great place for you to parole to.”

So he gets me Dad’s phone number, and I get a hold of dad, and he’s like, “Of course you can parole up here. You can still cook, right?” and we cracked up.

I could see myself volunteering in the correctional system. In five years, hopefully, I’ll be getting a masters degree and living in the country, off the grid. I’d like to see my son in college at that point.

On staying positive

You can either choose to change or you can choose to stay the same. But the choice is yours. My belief is perception equals projection. What you perceive around you is what you’re going to project outside of you. If you think, “This is a horrible place and I hate it,” that is what you’re going to project. But I don’t see it that way.

My mom taught me that everybody around you is impacted by everything you do. If you sit in the middle of a field cross-legged and you think about happy things and put love out into the world, that is going to impact the next person around you. That is going to impact the next tree around you. That is going to impact absolutely everything around you.

If I smile at a stranger, it’s going to brighten up their day. They’re more likely to pass that smile on to the next person. If I walk around with a scowl on my face and slam the door, that’s more likely to have a negative impact on the next person, and they’re gonna pass that on as well.

* * *

It’s not every day you get to enter a prison and leave an hour later with an inmate’s story imprinted on your heart. I’m grateful to Lisa for the candor with which she shared her journey and to Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for granting me an interview with her.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. Names have been changed due to privacy concerns.

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