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How Can I Be Free When My Child Is Incarcerated?

10 minute read
Nicole is originally from Elgin, Illinois and now calls Los Angeles home. She is the host of her podcast Locked In, an innovator, and self-proclaimed force to be reckoned with in her quest to shed light on the struggles faced by mothers with incarcerated children. Glasgow is a prison abolitionist and freelance writer, who spoke to Nicole for this piece.

It began during the COVID-19 pandemic. LA was shut down, and I got a phone call from my mother telling me that my son, Damiani, had done something he shouldn't have. It was Mother’s Day, and my son called me from a burner phone saying he was going to be on the run for a while. Towards the end of 2020, he got caught for a home invasion. Everything was virtual, so I couldn’t go into the courtroom, and he eventually got transferred to a maximum prison, sentenced to 9 years and 9 months.,

That's where my journey began. 

I believe in God, I go to church. But as I tried searching for communities that could speak to my specific experience as a mother with an incarcerated child, I couldn’t find anything. I went on YouTube and saw a few shortclips. I typed “moms with incarcerated kids” in my podcast app only to find episodes generally about prisons. Nothing was about the walk of a mother. 

I am the kind of person who has a glass of wine with Jesus on the balcony. Next thing I know, I'm hearing, ‘Why don't you start the podcast?’ So, a couple of months later, I did

So I ordered a mic, created a little studio in my apartment, and set up shop. A few months later, I launched my podcast and started just talking about the day in the life of a mother like me—how my family doesn’t understand, how people judge you as mothers, like “Oh, you failed as a mother, you should do better.” I had a lot of anger issues that I took out on my family and friends because I was so mad at my son for what he was doing. I thought it was my fault, and I learned that it wasn't. I shared that it was hard. That never in a million years did I think I was going to be here. I shared that I thought my son was going to get a scholarship to go to college for football, but things shifted. I shared that I still have to get up and go to work, and, with a team of 10 employees, leave my problems at the door. I cry in the car, put my makeup back on, and walk in like nothing's wrong. I try my best to keep it all together. 

After I started the podcast, I went to Facebook to see if there were any groups for mothers with incarcerated kids. There were a couple out there, and I joined, but the one thing I didn't like about the other groups is they lacked a positive, good flow of energy. Some of these mothers had children that were doing 20 years to life. One mother told a story about how her son died in prison. I started to get anxious, so I thought, let me create my own Facebook community and set the tone differently than everybody else’s. I created it in July of 2022. I called it “The Impact of Incarceration on Mothers,

Read More: The Destructive Lie Behind “Mass Incarceration”

In this group, you can cry, laugh, vent, and, most of all, there’s a sentiment that we're going to get through this. We’re stronger together. We’re at 1,600 women, with 300 new members as of April. And we’re not just in California, we’re all over the U.S. I'm very transparent about my journey, and I have mothers messaging me saying “I’m so happy I found you because nobody understands how I feel.” Trust is why the group is what it is—and why it keeps growing every day. (On a recent morning, for instance, I got another 20 notifications of women joining). This is a safe place for mothers, and we're not pointing fingers.

Mothers share their stories in posts and comments, and sometimes over Zoom calls. We have a mother that has three children in prison, 22 to 30, and she travels to three different states to see them. She lives in Atlanta, and she makes the trip with her husband to California where one of her sons is incarcerated in Long Beach. There's a mother who has to figure out how she’s going to come up with $20,000 for a lawyer, who asks about churches and nonprofit organizations who could help her. There's another woman with a disability who needs to find someone to give her a ride to visit her son. Oftentimes we ask questions: Do I use my money for my child inside or do I cover the cost of school backpacks for my two at home? My son is about to come up on his sentence; what does the parole situation look like? Can you guys help me find a lawyer? And all the mothers jump in. 

I shared my own story, too. I put in the group that it was my son’s first time in solitary confinement, and I hadn’t heard from him in two months. One woman told me I could call up the prison and ask for a wellness check, where a counselor would speak to my son and report back. I didn’t know that, but the community that I’m building did, so I was able to hear the basics about how my son was doing. One mother shared that there was a lockdown at her son’s prison in Texas, and so many moms started responding saying ‘wait a minute my son is there too!’ Then another mom shared why there was a lockdown, because she was super in tune with what was going on. So we’re able to share news with each other in real time.

Read More: Confronting Youth Incarceration

When I started the group, the more I kept reading the comments like, “I don't want to get out of bed today,” or “the doctor told me to start walking but I can’t,” I began to think of how I could shift this atmosphere while supporting these moms. So, I proposed a 21 day workout challenge and my notifications started going off with moms saying, “Yes, let's do something.” Next thing I knew women were posting selfies on hikes and moving their bodies. We’re a funny group. We do videos, we cry together, we post pictures of our dogs for National Dog Day, we’ll ask each other about recent dates, or who just got their hair done. We don’t always have to talk about our children being incarcerated.

I'm embracing this time because I feel like it's growing me as a mother. I was young when I had my son, and didn't know what I was doing. I would still do the basic things like pick my son up from school, but I would drop him off at his grandmother's house and go to parties. We were raising each other. I would share things about my life and he’d give me advice. Sometimes I didn't know if I was his mom or his sister. 

Damiani is unique. He’s always been different in a crowd, even his teachers would tell me that. He has a smile on him that just lights up the room, and he’s like a spitting image of me. He can gather people together, especially when there's dysfunction going on, and he has a great sense of humor. So in the midst of all of this, my son and I have a dynamic relationship. I told him about the Facebook group and he said he was so proud of me. He laughed and said, "It took me going to prison for you to find your purpose.”

My son’s middle name is Nassir. Since he’s been locked up, every time he calls or I write to him I call him King Nassir, because I can't imagine what it's like being locked up for 23 hours, what it’s like being in that prison. I always tell the mothers when you speak to your child, you have to speak life into them. I just told my son in a letter the other day that I'm proud of him. I know that sounds crazy to say that you're proud of your child being in prison. It's not the prison part. I'm proud of the fact that his mentality is changing. 

He’s always had no hair. Now, he has these long dreads. When he gets out, I just want to feel this hair of his. Like, what’s up with these dreads? That’s the first thing I want to do—put my hands through it. He's in Chicago, and the goal is to get him parole in the state of California. So we have to see what that looks like. He’s up for parole in 2025, and one of the moms in the group let me know I need to get in touch with the parole officer four months ahead of time to get him transferred to California. When he comes home, I want to employ him, because they say 50% of people in prison end up going back. So, he’ll join me as co-host on our podcast and we want to do a YouTube channel together. We want to share how he was raised with me, what type of mother I was, and how he got here. We want to be transparent with our story. We’re thinking of having a therapist on the show for both of us, because he’s not the same person and I’m not the same person. And I want to show this to other mothers and children.

I didn’t hear my son’s voice for eight months while he was in solitary, but not once did I drop the mic on my podcast or stop talking to mothers. The mothers in the group are powerful, each with their own set of experiences and emotions. When it comes to society pointing fingers, the first thing they say is, “Oh, they probably grew up in poverty, or there probably wasn't a father in the household.” That’s not the case. Some of these mothers are in two parent households. We have a mother who is a politician, with a daughter who is a prom queen, a son who is an athlete, and another son is in prison. It doesn’t look one way. And you don't have to hide behind it. One lady in the group told her neighbors her son was in the military because she was so embarrassed. But I’m not ashamed. 

We're in this boat together. No matter how rough the waters are, we’re still gonna get to the other side of victory. We're learning from each other, and we're literally leaning on each other.  We can't do this alone. We're mothers. 

The other day, I learned Damiani was finally out of the hole. He sent me a message from his tablet saying the warden let him out early. (He was supposed to be out May 20). I wasn’t going to pay for a flight to Chicago to see my son behind glass, because that felt like too much. But now that he’s out? I’m booking my flight. —As told to Abigail Glasgow

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