Children of inmates send a powerful message

May 27, 2009 7:22:43 PM PDT
Two young Bay Area women took a painful journey recently when they ventured into a prison to teach inmates a lesson on parenthood. They have quite a bit of personal knowledge on the subject. In this Assignment report, a look at life lessons from children whose parents were locked up.

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The last time Kristina Sanders and April Owens took a trip to a place like this, they were just little girls. Their mothers and fathers all served time for drugs.

April remembers visiting her mom in prison when she was only five years old.

"I just ran to my mom," remembered April. "She was kind of big and all done up. I was kind of excited, but at the same time, I hated her. Hatred towards her."

Both young women are 18 now. They practically raised themselves while their parents were behind bars. April was in and out of foster care. Kristina lived with family members who at times felt like strangers.

The Sierra Conservation Center is a state prison not far from Yosemite National Park Many of the hardened criminals there are doing life sentences, but on this day they were the students and April and Kristina were their teachers -- albeit nervous ones. They were hoping to share their stories and give a voice to the more than 1.7 million children in the country just like them -- children with parents in prison.

"I often felt like I was in foster care even though I was living with blood relatives," said Kristina.

"My aunt would always say, 'Your parents need to come and get you because you are not my child," said April.

The young women are part of an East Bay non-profit called Project WHAT!, which aims to raise awareness about the prison system and the life-altering impacts it can have on the children of inmates.

Their message left many of the prisoners with questions about their own relationships with children on the outside. Questions, that in some cases, no teenager should know the answer to, like the one from lifer Lee Cranke, whose 16-year-old daughter won't respond to his letters.

"I've already done the letter thing and apologized, as I'm in here for murder, but with no opportunity of going home," said Cranke. "So how do you really build that bond?"

The girls want inmates to know something they wish they told their own mothers and fathers -- that even though they are behind bars, it is never too late to be a parent.

Inmate Chris Bowen can only hope. He is serving an 11-year sentence for robbery.

"Her name is Nevea. She is 19 months old. She lives in Houston, Texas with her mom. I have never held her before," said Bowen.

After a 9-year DUI sentence, Mark Shiflett gets out in 90 days. He was too embarrassed to let his sons visit him.

"Now they see me as a broken man inside this prison," said Shiflett. "I feel a total embarrassment and a shame that they have to see me like this."

April says she is on the verge of forgiving her mother. Kristina says she already has, but both her parents are now dead.

And the question becomes, who benefits the most? The girls telling the story or the inmates listening to it?

"As a child you don't understand hecka stuff, but when you get older it's like you have to accept it, regardless, and I didn't think, really truthfully, I was going to accept this part of it, like the actual scenery. But I have to," said Kristina.

Related link:

Learn more about Project WHAT!

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