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