True Story: My Son Was In Prison

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things.  This is the story of Laura and her son’s incarceration.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

My name is Laura and I live in the desert southwest. I’m married,a mom, and together with my husband I’m raising a menagerie of rescued cats and dogs. I work for myself as a consultant,coach and trainer. In my spare time I like to quilt and grow roses. I also love to travel, especially to Europe. I just returned from a visit to two of my favorite cities, Florence and Barcelona.Tell us about your son.
My son is in his mid twenties. He’s a humble and kind person with a great sense of humor. He likes to fish  and is a master at card games. I met him just after he turned five when he came into our home as a foster child. He was such a sweet, charismatic kid we decided to adopt him almost immediately.In the beginning we didn’t know much about his early life. Dozens of tests and scans and inquiries later he was diagnosed with something called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS, which is a condition that results from maternal use of alcohol during pregnancy. FAS produces a cluster of impairments to the central nervous system, particularly the brain, which are irreversible. Every affected person experiences FAS differently. My son’s symptoms are severe, and have resulted in physical problems (like poor vision), learning challenges and cognitive disabilities.

When did your son start to have trouble?

We ran into trouble almost immediately. Within our first six months together he was asked to leave four different preschools. He struggled with impulsivity and problem solving and had a hard time fitting in. His teachers had a difficult time understanding him and oftentimes his dad and I did too. Life was so uncertain from day to day I chose to leave my job to be at home full time.

Over a couple years his frustration turned into anger and aggression. In middle school he lashed out at teachers and fellow students. In high school things got worse; he left home, sometimes for days at a time, and got into trouble with the law. Most of his charges were petty, non violent and the result of poor judgment which is a common challenge for people with FAS. By the time he was 18 he was living mostly on the streets, using drugs and alcohol and keeping in touch with us sporadically, when he could.

How did you (and the other people in your son’s life) try to deal with his issues?
Initially my husband and I tried adapting our parenting style but we quickly realized we were in over our heads. We sought out therapy and other community resources. As the situation got worse and life at home became unsafe our son had to spend time in psych hospitals and in residential treatment. Our friends and family struggled to understand and help us cope. Some were supportive but others shunned our son and kept their distance from us. It was a painful, isolating time.

How did your son end up in prison?

He went to prison for the first time at age 19. He was in jail for a minor offense and asked permission to call me on my birthday. When he was refused, he assaulted a guard and was ultimately sentenced to two years in prison. He was released after a year and placed on community probation. While on probation he was homeless, struggling with unmedicated mental illness and substance abuse. One snowy night in January he broke into some cars to find a warm place to sleep. He was caught and arrested. Because they were state-owned vehicles the judgment was more severe. He served almost four years in prison and was paroled again in 2009.

How has his prison sentence affected you?
I’d never known anyone who’d been in prison so it was a whole new world for me. I had no idea how difficult and frustrating it would be to maintain our relationship while he was away. Our phone calls and letters were monitored by prison staff. When I visited I had to pass through a metal detector and be patted down by a male guard. Sometimes we were able to sit across from one another, other times we visited over the phone or through glass. When I was able to see him I was restricted to two hugs, one at the beginning of the visit and one at the end. It was a humiliating experience, start to finish.

While he was away I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I missed his physical presence, being able to talk to him whenever I wanted to. Birthdays and holidays were particularly challenging and I worried about him constantly. My health suffered until I was able to cultivate better coping skills, which I did with the help of a therapist and a few trusted friends.

What will happen once he’s released from prison?
After his release in 2009 my son moved to be closer to me. He’s on probation now and is enrolled in the public mental health system. He’s receiving services including medication, therapy, housing assistance and life skills training. It’s been rocky in spots but most recently he was able to secure an apartment and land a part-time job. Fingers crossed!

How was this affected your view of America’s prison system?
I’ve learned so much. Prison is a dehumanizing experience that fails on most of its primary goals. It doesn’t reduce recidivism. In fact, recidivism rates for low risk offenders are higher than the norm, suggesting that for some, prison enhances criminality. Men of color and people with mental illness are grossly and tragically overrepresented. Rehabilitation initiatives are underfunded. Public safety is ensured only until overcrowding or some other fiscal reality influences length of stay.

When they’re released, men and women who’ve been mistreated and underserved reenter the population with many of the same challenges that left them vulnerable in the first place. Surely our country can do better.

What advice would you give to someone with a loved one who’s incarcerated?

Be gentle with yourself. Ensure that your needs for comfort and support are met so that you can be an advocate for your loved one. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You’re not alone.

Do any of you have friends or family who have been incarcerated?  Do you have any questions for Laura?

original image [without text on top] by susan hale photography, for sale here

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  1. Megan

    I guess I want to offer….solidarity. My adopted brother is thirteen and the similarities between the stories are almost exactly the same. Good luck and I hope everything goes easily afterwards for both you and him.

  2. Kate

    My cousin has a very similar story. Also adopted, and I remember him being so violent when we were little. I love my cousin very much, and I empathize with your struggle.

    Please be encouraged though, my cousin is in his late 20s and his life has really turned around. He has found a passion to channel energy through (Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)) and is living on his own and is happy and healthy for the first time in his life. I hope your son is on the same path!!

  3. Lauren

    My uncle is similar to your son – adopted and has been on a self destructive path since a young age. Recently he was arrested again for drug trafficking offences and was found guilty so we are currently awaiting a sentence decision. It's very hard because we all know how important his family is (he has 6 nieces and he is very protective of us) but he just can't seem to get his life together.

    I wish you – and especially your son – the very best in life.

  4. Janelle @ Two Cups Of Happy

    What an interesting perspective. I have never known anyone who has been in prison, so I appreciate you sharing this. Thank you!

  5. Catrina

    I am a social worker and I work at a drug and alcohol treatment center. Sadly we see stories like your son's quite often. My heart goes out to you.

  6. Laura

    Thanks to all for the kind words and for sharing some of your experiences, and best of luck to those facing similar challenges.

  7. DD

    What people don't know is that most of those in prison are from drug offenses and many are mentally ill. Our government didn't want to rehab mentally ill people, it was easier to punish them by putting them in prison. There is no federal parole, so prisons are filled with young men who will never get to grow up on the outside. For some reason this seems to be alright with the general population, because no one protests about it. Most people I know are shocked to find that there is no federal parole.

  8. slivesay

    My son recieved a 5 year prison sentence in the state of colo. This is very hard for me! I live in another state, i plan on flying to colo as soon as they place him. I have cried non stop! I dont know how to handle this! Its a non violent crime, but my fear is unmeasureable please any advice?

    • Anonymous

      I also cried and cried, my son was in jail for 5months before they sent him to prison. toughest thing I have ever been in. Our son is kind, and trusting, but he had a relationship with a 16 yr old. he really really liked her. now he is in prison as a sex offender. im on medication for anxiety and depression, don’t know how anyone can go thru this without mediction. I still cry, still have hard days, but I need this medication to keep most my days sane.

      • Michelle

        Hi my step-son is in county jail right now, he had been in many trouble as a young teen, he was at the juvinile hall and while he was there, he got charge for armed and robery, courts after courts dates we been through. It’s so heart breaking to see him on those. Chains, he is a great kid just made some bad choices along with his so called friends. And now, he plead guilty and waiting for sentencing. We are heartbroken his siblings missed him so much. We have a strong faith in our lord jesus chris that he will deliver us from this situation.

      • Laura Fenn

        I’m dealing with same thing, however my son has been in jail for 19 months and still not sentenced. He is only 22 and the girl he was with was 16 she was over at our house everyday told me she was 18. Everyday I wonder what his sentence will be and how his life will be permanently ruined. I don’t take any medication I just pray a lot. It is very difficult because no one understands what I am going through. I love my son and he is a good person but through the eyes of others he is a criminal .


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