By Chanell Burnette / The Marshall Project
When I learned that my first grandchild had entered the world, I was the only soul out in the small dayroom in a quarantined unit of my Virginia prison. As I dialed my oldest son on one of the mounted telephones, I was much too excited to sit down. Instead, I stood for all 20 minutes of our afternoon call, beaming as my child broke the news that his baby had just been born. Over a blaring television, I barraged him with questions: “How much does he weigh?!” (Seven pounds, 12 ounces.) “How long is he?!” (19 ½ inches.) “Where is he now?!” (With the nurses.) “What’s he doing?!” (Getting cleaned up.)
In that moment, I felt joy and a peace that was undefinable. It was like something had come over me — I just knew that my son’s life had been changed for the better, that this baby would be the blessing he needed to alter the course of his life. But I was also embarrassed to be sitting in prison, physically absent.
As the day came to a close, I did finally sit down to reflect on my own parenthood journey. My two sons were very young when I was first incarcerated 18 years ago: My oldest was almost 4 and his brother was just shy of 6 months.
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I will never forget my first visit with my mother and my boys at Roanoke City Jail. I could not touch them because I was sitting behind plexiglass. I only vaguely remember returning to my cell, but I can vividly recall lying on that cold cement floor and crying for hours, until I was numb. I was curled up in a fetal position for so long that my muscles stiffened.
While my visits with my children eventually became easier — even joyful, at times — it hurt me to watch my eldest son have behavioral difficulties. As a result of his missing me, he acted out in school and at home, where he lived with my parents. My guilt ate away at my conscience like a swarm of maggots devouring a corpse. Once, when my then-teenage son stayed away from home for three days, I sat on my cell floor and cried for 72 hours without eating. I sunk into a depression so deep that I couldn’t pull myself out of it until a trusted friend confronted me. “You’re going to die if you keep letting that boy stress you out,” she told me. “You won’t make it much longer.”
So I learned how to take better care of myself. I took advantage of every educational and self-help opportunity offered to me. I strengthened my walk with God through daily prayer and Bible-reading. I stuck close to my children through phone calls every day and letters each week that contained a new word and a life lesson. As a member of the Mothers Inside Loving Kids program, I was able to have visits with them every other month. The only major milestones I missed were those in the physical realm.
Every so often, in my mind, I like to replay a video visit I had with my oldest when my grandson was 6 months old. I rejoiced in seeing this handsome young man, with his long dreadlocks pulled back neatly into a ponytail and cap, gently kiss his sleeping child. He was careful not to allow the brim of his hat to touch the baby’s face. My grandson had the cheeks of a real-life Cabbage Patch doll and a small mark in the middle of his forehead that looked to me like a cross. It felt like a double blessing — my grandson was precious, and he was marked by God.
Now, as I near the end of my prison journey, my grandson is 2 years old, and his dad is almost 22. Although I am nervous about making such a big transition, I feel ready. I feel like I have a second chance with my sons. It’s funny how things come full circle. When I went to prison, I left behind two babies. Soon, I will return to another little boy, my grandson. This is two generations of me. Given all that I’ve been through, I’m more than satisfied with that.
Chanell Burnette is a 43-year-old mother of two sons and grandmother of one. She was born and raised in the city of Roanoke, Virginia, until she was arrested in 2005 for the crime of second-degree murder. She has been incarcerated for 18 years, but her lifelong dream has not changed. She seeks to be a world-renowned author, transforming lives through the power of her written words.