By Carolyn LeCroy
NOTE: The below story is the fourth in a series highlighting the voices of women across the country whose experiences and stories are helping to propel the national conversation on the need for criminal justice reform, and helping to advance the ongoing efforts to achieve reform at the state and federal levels.The series, “Women in the Justice System,” will highlight these stories here, by the Coalition for Public Safety, and by our sister organization, the U.S. Justice Action Network.
When I was pulled over in 1994, I had never been arrested. I had never even had a parking ticket. I was a mother of two with a good job and friends in my community. Like many others who I met when I eventually went to prison, I was a good person who made a bad decision.
I had been letting a former boyfriend use a storage unit rented in my name, and after searching it, the police found a large quantity of marijuana. They tracked me down, pulled me over outside my house, and charged me with possession and intent to distribute. From the moment they approached my car, I was in shock, and felt almost as if I was watching what was happening to me from the outside.
When I learned my sentence would amount to a total of 55 years in prison, my knees buckled. There wasn’t anything anyone could do to help me.
I would have to leave my job, my children, and my friends, potentially for decades.
I was able to see my children now and then — hug them, see their faces, look them in the eye. One of them was getting ready to graduate from high school, and the other from college. I felt like I was missing it.
I was one of the lucky ones, though. My children came to visit me all the time, and by the time I was released I knew my time with them was the only reason I survived.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 2.7 million children have one or both parents in the criminal justice system. From experience, I know thiscan be impossibly hard for parents. On visiting days I remember seeing women get dressed up, only to wait all day for family who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) come. Their disappointment, their anger, their frustration all moved me those days, but also stayed with me after I was released.
A lot of us who have served time want to make a difference when we get out, but getting back to normal life is a full-time job.
It took me a while to get used to things like going outside whenever I wanted, or answering the phone, and even longer to be comfortable telling my story. Eventually though, I realized I still I had that nagging feeling telling me I had to do something to help people like me — good people who had made a bad decision, and their families.
My visits with my children had been so crucial to all of us, and I wanted to give the same opportunity to others. Prisons are often in remote locations, hard for anyone to get to, let alone young children who often need a caretaker invested in making sure they’re able to get there.
It’s easy to see how so many families are ripped apart forever.
I’ve been naïve at times in the past, and sometimes it’s gotten me into trouble. But a few other times it’s been the reason why I’ve been able to do something seemingly too hard to tackle.
When I first started The Messages Project 15 years ago I wrote a proposal, gained staff support from the corrections facility all the way up the chain of command, and finally started filming videos with female inmates on Mother’s Day of 1999.
Since then, we’ve recorded over 10,000 videos with men and women across the state of Virginia. Most are as simple as someone reading a bedtime story, singing a song, or saying a prayer, but the impact is significant.
One of the very first “thank yous” I received was from a maximum-security prisoner, thanking me for sending her home for the first time in 15 years. We’ve had notes from guardians who say the child they care for won’t go to sleep until their mother or father reads them a story. One woman sent a message to her child after having no contact in 10 years, and they have slowly begun to repair their relationship.
Rebuilding these families isn’t just helping children — it’s having a profound effect on prison populations and the inmates themselves. This connection to the outside helps them focus on the future, and gives them the most important reason of all to turn their lives around. Virginia has the second-lowest rate of recidivism in the country, and it’s easy to imagine how our work is helping make that possible.
In fact, the criminal justice system takes a crippling toll on families even after incarceration — especially on children.
Between 33 million and 36.5 million children in the United States — nearly half of U.S. children — now have at least one parent with a criminal record.
These criminal records create significant barriers to accessing employment, housing, education.
They present significant challenges to accessing the necessary resources that are so important to taking care of your family and making sure that you’re providing an environment that empowers children to live up to their full potential. In the end, these barriers continue to punish people who have done their time, but more importantly, they continue punishing the children who deserve a shot at a promising and prosperous future.
Until we overhaul our system, families will continue facing challenges. And this is why I do the work that I do. Because I know that by reuniting families who have been torn from each other, I can help to at least inspire hope that we can overcome any challenge.
When people are given the chance to connect with the most important people in their lives — their families — they can do anything.
The Messages Project is a nonprofit organization that enables children of incarcerated parents to maintain and rebuild relationships with their mothers and fathers. Since 1999, The Messages Project has recorded and delivered more than 10,000 video messages from incarcerated parents to their children. Carolyn LeCroy, Founder and CEO of The Messages Project, was named a CNN Hero in 2008 for her efforts and advocacy for these at-risk youth. She is the author of the book “A Parent’s Message,” an interactive guide through the reunification process for families.
The Coalition for Public Safety is the largest national bipartisan effort working to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more cost effective at the federal, state and local levels.
The Coalition has brought together the most prominent organizations from across the political spectrum to pursue comprehensive reforms, including: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress, the Faith & Freedom Coalition, FreedomWorks, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Right on Crime. Together, these organizations represent tens of millions of Americans seeking commonsense criminal justice reforms. Our key supporters are Laura and John Arnold, Koch Industries, Inc., the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Learn more about the Coalition at www.coalitionforpublicsafety.org.