How Do You Parent From Prison?
Have you ever forgotten that it was your day to carpool or that a big school event was today? The guilt can stay with you for ages. You love your child, of course, but nobody is perfect.
Now imagine the guilt if your “not perfect-ness” landed you in prison. You’re still a parent. You still love your children. But how can you raise them when you’re behind a barbed-wire fence miles and miles away?
It’s possible. Horizon Prison Initiative is addressing this challenge by offering a program called Parenting Inside Out. Horizon participants at the Ohio Reformatory for Women are taking this highly acclaimed 60-hour course to become the best parents they can be—now and when they leave prison.
Madeleine Trichel, who facilitates that class, said it can be difficult for people from healthy families to understand what this class entails.
“I need to show several of the moms how to hold a book when they are reading to a child,” she said. “Why don’t they know how to do this? Because no one read to them when they were little.”
Carrying Teddy Bears on Prison Grounds
A key component of Parenting Inside Out is the adoption of teddy bears, which serve as surrogates for children. To support the students taking this course, several artistic Horizon women hand made the stuffed bears—each one unique—and donated them to the class.
Once a student has her bear, she is responsible for its care 24/7. If she needs to be at work or school, she must find someone to provide daycare. She uses index cards as baby monitors. When she brushes her teeth in the morning, one card stays next to the teddy bear and one goes with her to the bathroom. Taking care of a little one takes daily discipline, and these exercises help instill good habits.
It must feel awkward to carry a teddy bear around a prison, but the women, like mothers throughout time, show off their bear-babies to friends and co-workers, said Horizon Curriculum Specialist Madeleine Trichel.
“They moved past their embarrassment quickly because becoming a better parent is important to them,” she said.
Learning How to Communicate During Challenging Times
Being a mother in prison is hard. So is having a mother in prison. Emotions can run high on both sides of a conversation. Trichel teaches techniques to manage emotions and use neutral language on the phone, in written communications, and in person whether a student is communicating with her child, her child’s caregiver, a family member, or a case worker.
To hone these skills, pairs of students sit back-to-back in chairs for a role-playing exercise. One acts as the parent; the other as a case worker, caregiver, or spouse. Then they imagine they are talking on the phone to each other using real-world scenarios, such as:
- Something happened at school, and the parent needs to talk to a case worker.
- A caregiver is angry that the mother is in prison, so she won’t let her speak to her children.
- The incarcerated mother wants to ask the caregiver to bring the children for a visit, even though they live two hours away.
Throughout the role-play, they discuss what it takes to achieve a positive outcome in each situation—and how quickly an angry remark or fear of asking a question can lead to less favorable results.
Curriculum Strives to Prioritize, Parent, and Protect Children
Trichel said she chose the Parenting Inside Out curriculum because it has the academic rigor and real-world outcomes to support its claims. Once she began teaching it, she was impressed by how immersed the students became in the lessons.
On their own initiative, students formed two study groups to do homework together. They accommodate each other’s work and school commitments—and even take attendance—to make sure all the mothers can get the most from this class.
Trichel said she has already seen progress from Parenting Inside Out.
“One participant learned these lessons well enough that she was able to repair a relationship with a family member, and now she can talk to her daughter,” she said.
Another mom realized there are nonviolent alternatives to correct a child’s behavior.
“I used to think it was just normal to hit somebody when I got mad, because that’s what I always saw,” she said. “But now my thinking has changed, and I can tell I’m different. I don’t have to put my hands on anybody. Now I can take a deep breath and walk away.”
Parenting Inside Out curriculum costs $2,500 plus $775 to train each facilitator. Horizon is working to raise funds to train others to teach the class—to more Horizon mothers at ORW and to fathers at the Horizon program in the London Correctional Institution. If you would like to donate to this initiative, you can do so on our website (and thank you).