*Editor’s Note: This is an opinion piece and reflects the opinion of the author, not Adoption.com itself. The sources used by the author in this article have chosen to remain anonymous.
I can remember that she was wearing a white dress with big pink polka dots on it, tied with a bow in the back, made out of thick, textured ribbon. Her straight brown hair was just past her chin, and she was jumping the cracks on the sidewalk, and then the tiles inside. She was happy and excited. At 18 months old, she really didn’t know where we were going, but she did know we were going to visit her birth mom.
It was my idea to do the prison visit. Prison visit seems like such a harsh term—PGRCC is a regional remand center. The legal system is still, after all these years, really confusing for me, but to simplify it, a remand center is a corrections facility for those serving terms of two years less a day, and under. It will be important to remember the term “corrections facility,” as in Canada, incarceration is still thought of as a way to reform behavior—in fact, the jail system is run by “Corrections Service.”
Our newly adopted daughter would be too young to understand that her birth mother was serving time, but she was used to regular contact and would be asking where her Momma T was. Our family has been committed to birth family openness since very early on in our journey—it is a part of our general calling, I believe. It is an extension of our faith and more than just a “do unto others” jaunt that we fall back on. After reading The Birth Mother’s Journey quite early on into our fostering adventures, I felt for the pain that birth mothers feel about the loss of connection with their birth children. And…I knew there was something that I could do about it for the adopted children in our home. Not everyone has understood this decision, or even agreed with it, but it has been the right decision for us, and perhaps the only route that we would have been okay with. After years of street ministry, my heart had broken so many times, and I knew that if there was something I could do to aid in the healing of another, I would do it. And so, this brought me to the place where I asked Momma T if she would like her daughter to visit her in jail, and she said yes.
I was expecting to speak through glass or a phone line, but we had the surprise of being allowed a contact visit. We were in a room with Momma T, dressed in what looked like nursing scrubs with her hair and makeup done, a chaplain, and an armed guard. Our daughter, both hers and mine and not ours to hold on to at all, all at once, was allowed one hug at the end of the visit, with a stoic head nod from the guard when the time came. The room was run down, the toys mostly broken. Our daughter was happy and bubbly, and I have no regrets. This visit, though, would spark in me the slowly burning feeling that our judicial system was missing something crucial.
Plain brown envelopes arrive regularly in our rural mailbox marked with labels reading, “DO NOT BEND,” and addressed to my daughter. PGRCC has a prison reading program, and the first time such a package arrived, I thought I might cry. I remember receiving a phone call asking if we would receive books with an audio recording with it—the recording would be the birth parent reading the story to her child. I remember feeling that this was a beautiful extension of the intimate relationship between parent and child, and right away I knew that this would become a bedtime tradition. When the books started arriving, we right away noticed they were good quality books—some funny, some serious, most with a good life message. The books would have personalized notes from the birth parent inside, sometimes with an outline of her hand drawn on the inside cover. Slowly, I picked up my little girl’s hand—her little girl’s hand—and placed it within the outline. Her hand somehow holding her mother’s hand from afar. I tucked and snuggled her into her bed, and popped the CD into the brand-new player we bought for her room and hit play. “Hey baby girl, it’s me, Momma T! This story is called…..” and away we went. Our little girl listened in awe, looked at me, and asked, “Is that Mom?” “Yes, sweetie, it is!” She was hooked. At the end of the book, Momma T signed off with, “Alright baby girl, I love you, you be good for your mom and dad, okay?” Again, tears. For all the worry from others on the outside about whether birth parent contact was right and good, I knew we had something beautiful happening here. Almost every single night, I hear Momma T read the now dozens of books. Her little girl ponders and sorts through them before bed, selecting what she would like to listen to. She has most of the books memorized and says, “Listen, Mom laughs here!” She knows every word by heart…and she knows her birth mother’s voice.
And so do I, because this beautiful little child sometimes wakes up at night and can’t sleep; so, she turns the volume up high and snuggles in deeper. I wake up at 3 a.m. to the sounds of Momma T reading about naughty goats and cats and dogs, and the old woman who swallowed a fly. Although I groan and stumble down the stairs, wishing I’d grabbed my glasses so I could actually avoid the toys on the floor on my way to turn the volume down, I can’t help but smile.
The parent reading program at PGRCC is run entirely by volunteers from a local church, or so I’m told. Sometimes, the mostly elderly ladies can’t come due to lockdowns.
I’ve worked with a few inmates in a few capacities now—many inmates are parents. Their children may be in foster care, living with relatives, or with their partners, or may have been adopted.
It is said that a majority of violent crimes are committed by men. In a remand center, where the most time served will be two years less a day, we know that all the inmates WILL be released into the general population again. We know that they will walk amongst us, rehabilitated or not. There has been some evidence that men serving time can become even more criminalized than before they were incarcerated. There is far less information on female inmates, but what this means is that sometimes, people incarcerated leave with more information on how to commit crimes, or more rage, or more trauma than when they entered.
I’m told that for 300 inmates in a particular center, there is one drug and alcohol counselor. This means that during an entire sentence served an inmate may not actually get any drug and alcohol counseling. Addictions tend to walk hand-in-hand with serving time for many inmates. Generational trauma, generational addictions, and residential school history are almost precursors for many inmates. Due to the nature of a remand center, many inmates are serving time for things such as breaches of probation, drug charges, impaired driving, and fraud. Arguably, breaches and fraud can be, many times, linked back to addictions. Should our inmates serving time for anything drug and alcohol related not be expected to be receiving counseling if our Canadian corrections centers are focused on rehabilitation? It is no secret that drugs do get into our prison systems and even that alcohol could possibly be made inside our prison systems. One private source I spoke to, who does not wish to be named and is a birth parent connected with our family, has stated in a recent phone call that he was moved to a rehabilitation center and that his stay will be funded by the government after he got hooked on heroin in jail—apparently, a dirty prison guard system was at work. Apparently, there will be a court case.
Gabor Maté says it well when he asks, “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain?” While I have read far less research when it comes to birth fathers, there is a link between addictions and birth mothers who lose connection with their birth children. Not all birth mothers become addicts, but some do. In The Birth Mother’s Journey, it is suggested that the first two years after placing a child for adoption are very painful. When we look at some birth mothers who have given birth to two, four, six, eight, ten children, all of whom have been removed from their care and may be residing in foster or adoptive homes, we have to look at “Why the pain?” Another source says, “I told them [the social workers] I was going to keep having babies until they let me keep one.” Although our society might be quick to jump on this and bring judgment on such a person making a statement, I find my compassion overflows here. I have physically sat in the hospital many times now with birth moms losing custody of a newborn baby, and the pain is tangible. Addictions or not, birth parents—and inmates—are people.
[Editor's Note: The following paragraph is based on anonymous sources the author has talked to.] In September of 2019, there was a riot—or not—at PGRCC. It depends on who you ask. The article, “Inmates ‘riot’ at Prince George jail, take over elevator and damage building: union,” shows that there is a discrepancy between how the incident is viewed. After speaking with an inmate incarnated at PGRCC at that time, it seems to that there may have been mattresses being set on fire with the aid of a toaster, with male inmates urinating in protest to the overcrowded situation, and an elevator being taken over, requiring a tactical team to come in, in which case a riot would be the correct term. While the behavior is unacceptable, at the time this happened, the women’s unit had been cut in half in order to accommodate an overflow of male inmates. This means rooms were packed, people were sleeping on the floor, and apparently the jail system may have actually paid six inmates to transfer to Alouette Corrections Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, BC, where there are 150 women incarcerated monthly. The women feel they are second-rate when living in jails designed to house men (and where the influx of men is literally pushing the women to sleep on the floor or in the gymnasium). Before there is an outcry that these are criminals and that this is what happens when you break the law, stop. These are women who WILL be released back into your communities because they have not committed atrocious crimes. Sometimes, they are there to serve as little as two week’s time. The women would like to receive proper programs, before sentencing dates (oh yes…sentencing can happen a few weeks or months or more into incarceration, due to how backed up the judicial system is). The women would like the option of programs dealing with trauma, addictions, recovery and mental health—and is this not beneficial to our communities, as a whole? Would this possibly help our failing and over-crowded foster care system, too? Staff counts are too low to support this programming, so people are released from a “correctional center” with very little correction, indeed. Women inside ACCW tell me what affects them the most is being away from family, and their children, as well as any support they had. Another issue the women want to be heard is that minimum and medium (open custody arrangements) are not available due to a lack of resources – what this actually translates into is that these women cannot access Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or do volunteer work in the community, but most men’s corrections centers in the province allow this for male inmates. Why?
According to a source that wishes to stay anonymous, when an inmate from Northern BC is in custody for more than 90 days, they are given a support cheque from Welfare and a bus ticket upon release. They may not have had any counseling, mental health support, or ANYTHING to prevent reoffending due to addictions, but they are handed a urine bag to use in the back of the sheriff’s van on the 16-hour ride from a facility in Vancouver back to PGRCC the week before their release back into our society.
I have been working with birth parents for seven years, and most of them have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, none of which have been for major or violent crimes. I can’t help but wonder how much more trauma is loaded on to these women and men who are often victims of the foster care system, residential schools, or trauma, themselves. I can’t help but be angry with a system that provides so little but expects compliance while providing next to no support.
My “baby girl” is not such a baby anymore—she is 6 now. Her books and audio recordings from Momma T are a precious treasure to her. Recently, another child in our home looked at me through teary eyes, and asked, “Why can’t my birth mom look after me?” to which my only reply was, “Sometimes, when kids grow up without food or clothes, and when they are hurt really badly over and over again, they just can’t.” Someday, but not now, I would add to that, that sometimes trauma compounds trauma until trauma is all that a person can see in their life, and it snuffs out anything that could be good. And I wonder, not just a little, if our prison system is doing exactly that.
I would like to thank the women at Alouette Corrections Centre for Women and Prince George Regional Corrections Centre for being willing to talk with me about their personal experiences—thank you for allowing me to be a part of your journey.