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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Child Of An Incarcerated Parent, By Melissa Tanis - Guest Blogger Blogs, Guest Blogs 

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Child Of An Incarcerated Parent
By Melissa Tanis - Guest Blogger 

We asked Melissa to write a guest blog for after she contacted us looking for a job.  
She sent us one of the most poignant, moving
 and authentic pieces we have ever
 had the honor of reading. - Jeff

When I was five years old my father was sentenced to a maximum of 50 years in prison. I was not able at that age to comprehend how much my life would change from that moment on. I visited my father in prison when I was eight years old and then went 17 years without any contact.

During that time, my mom was a single mom for five years, working as a teacher and trying to support four kids. She was (and still is) amazingly strong and a positive example for me of what it means to be an empowered woman with enough vulnerability and strength to rely on and receive help from others. I remember members of our church would just show up at our doorstep with dinner or groceries or a new refrigerator when ours broke.

My mom said at the sentencing that the judge looked at her and told her that we were the “silent victims”. I understand what he means by that. When your family member has committed a crime against others, especially one that has been followed by the media, there is a level of guilt, shame, and embarrassment that can hinder self-care. Your only desire is that the victims feel no more pain at whatever cost. You suddenly become a source of pain, a reminder of what happened. I only know this now as an adult and by looking at the story through my mom’s lens. But as a five year old, I was not fully aware of the situation and therefore could not understand why I could not be around my friends anymore. My mom was wise enough to not neglect self-care, and put us all in counseling. Although counseling to me was getting to play Chinese checkers while my friend asked me if I ever felt angry at times, I enjoyed time with my counselor and at a young age had a positive view of counseling.

Even with the immense help of friends and family, we still struggled financially and emotionally. We were all hit with an unexpected bomb and my mom did everything she could to keep us on our feet.

There was a 17 year gap where I was indirectly the child of an incarcerated person. He was my father through genetics but was not in my life at all. One day as a 22 year old in college I had this random realization that I was not even sure if my father was still alive. As I am learning now, the prisons do not tell you much and especially not in a timely fashion. When my father almost died in prison in 2013, my aunt did not know about it for almost a month after the fact.

Back to being in college, I decided to google my father’s name to see if I could find out any information. This was the first time I had ever done this. What I found was pretty life-changing for me. My father was in a rehabilitation program called Shakespeare Behind Bars and a documentary was made about the program. My father is in that documentary. Suddenly, I had a way of seeing him after 15 years at this point. I worked myself up to watching it by reading reviews and watching trailers. I downloaded the documentary that night and watched it. I was hit to my core. My dad would say things throughout the film like “those who need mercy the most are the ones you think deserve it the least”. I felt as if he was crying out for someone to take notice of his pain, for someone to not define him by the worst thing he has ever done.

It took me two years to work up the courage to write him, but I finally wrote him my first letter in February 2014. Since then we have written countless letters, spend time on the phone weekly and I have gone to visit him twice. Our relationship is very unique in that my dad knew me as a child, and now all of sudden I am a woman. He missed out on very crucial years, and yet he gets to see the result of those years. We have moments where we feel really connected, and then moments where we’re reminded how much we do not know about each other. I knew my dad as a five year old. I did not know anything about his life, his growing up years, even how he met my mom. I do not know that much about him, although I am learning, and yet he is my dad and I feel like even though I do not know facts about him, I understand him.

He is my dad. And he is incarcerated.

I can tell him about my day, about what is going on in my life right now, but he does not get to experience it. I cannot just call him up whenever. He tells me about life inside the wire but I will never really be able to understand or truly relate to what he is going through. I can only sympathize when I wish to fully empathize.

My dad will sometimes reminisce about what could have been. He was a computer engineer and ahead of his time. He was on the edge of the technology boom and who knows what kind of apps, websites, etc. he could have created or invested in. He tells me if he had not gone into prison, he imagines we would be millionaires. Whether or not that is true, when he talks this way it reminds me of how drastically my life did change when I was young. I am happy with the person I have become and the adversities I have been through have allowed me to see the most important things in life, things other than potentially growing up as a millionaire’s kid. As much as I wish my father did not commit his crimes and leave my life at such a young age, I like the relationship we have now. Reminiscing about the past does little good. All we have is now. I remind my dad of this when he begins to look back. I can imagine he has a lot of time in prison to think. But I try to keep him moving forward, to think of what can be, to not try to correct his past mistakes but to see what he has in front of him: a daughter who supports him and cares about him now, not what he could have been had he not gone to prison or who he was before he committed his crimes.

I have learned so much about the prison system and the brokenness on the inside that is easily kept on the inside. I am grateful for what seems to be a push in more awareness of the conditions of our prisons and the problem of mass incarceration. I have sat in a visiting room and held back my own tears as I watch grown men unsuccessfully try to fight back tears as they hug their wives, children and mothers goodbye, some of them not knowing when they will ever see them again.

And I have learned the power of human connection. For someone inside the wire, contact with someone outside of it speaks so deeply to their soul. It helps them feel heard. It helps them feel like they are not forgotten. One thing I have seen in my dad is that it is easy to slip into oblivion. It is easy to push people out because they are already out and going through the pain of letting them in is a huge risk. It is easy to feel forgotten because to many people, you are.

The challenges of being an adult with an incarcerated parent mainly consist of a constant worry that they will be ok. I do not have unrealistic expectations that he would ever be at a point of thriving. If he calls and does not seem depressed, that is a win. One of my biggest fears before I wrote my dad is that he would die in prison without ever knowing that I care about him. That fear was almost a reality. A year and a half before I wrote my dad, he found out he has cancer. He is almost in full remission. A year later, something in his bowels ruptured and although he cried for help, no one did anything until a nurse came and ordered them to rush him to the hospital or else he would die. Many people do not survive what he went through. He just had a surgery to repair the rupture last month and before he went into it, he told me there were some risks and that I would be a person on their list to contact if anything happened to him. Thank goodness he came out of it fine. But I cannot rush to the hospital to see him. I cannot help him in his recovery. I have to trust him to a system that sees him as a number, a criminal only deserving of the minimal amount of care and not even that at times. He told me about a nurse at the hospital who was kind to him and that made everything so much easier. She treated him like a regular patient. When I cannot be there for him, I am grateful for people like that nurse who exhibit compassion beyond the norm.

I know I am not capable of making everything in his life perfect, nor should I try because that is too big of a task to bear, but I do carry around his pain. It is unavoidable. However, I choose to carry his pain with him. I choose to sit with him through the mess that is prison, through the ugliness that is depression, through the pain of loneliness, through the moments of shame and self-loathing, and through the joys that come through reconnecting.

Because not only is he my dad, he is a human being who is not invincible, no matter how much he wishes he was.

Originally published in Jan. '15, this became our most-read blog ever! Melissa soon became sought after in the NY reentry community and accepted a job with The Osborne Association - you can read about it in her follow up blog, From Darkness Into Light, Dec. '15. She happily resides in Brooklyn, NY, loves to travel, learn new things, binge-watch Netflix, and is currently teaching herself Spanish. Melissa can be reached at Twitter: @meltanissa


Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
(o) 203-769-1096
(m) 203-339-5887

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We are grateful for donations from individuals, religious groups, charities, foundations and the like. Donations can be made by credit card/PayPal or by sending your check payable to: “Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.” P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883. Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project are missions of Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. We are a CT Religious Corp. with 501c3 status - all donations are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. Thank you for your support and generosity.

If transformation and redemption matter to you, a friend or a family member with a white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issue, please contact us and we will promptly send you an information package by mail, email or via Dropbox. The darkest days of a person's life can be a time of renewal and hope.
Comments from Social Media: 

Kate Rolston 
Founder at Mana HQ
That was a great post and opened up my heart today. We are all human and fallible. This young lady suffered a lot as an innocent victim but now, how much compassion, strength and forgiveness she is able to show is impressive and will go a long way to inspire others. She is a beautiful example of the most important part of what it means to be HUMAN.

Richard Sampson 
Vision of Life, Founder,Director,Advocate and Public Speaker
There are literally thousands of children of incarcerated parents. Maybe it's time to step up and help them

Barbara Dudley 
Business Owner at Awakenings Treatment Services
Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful piece of a relationship in the making...I feel you would be a huge asset to work with families of incarcerated members...I notice you don't mention your mother much ( except in the beginning) and get the idea this is clearly your journey...The part where your dad was hospitalized felt as though he was being punished again rather than like any other human being as the nurse you mentioned was able to do...Fear, bias and generally someone Else's anger gets in the way...This was very moving and I find it so interesting to hear about your developing relationship...Good for you...

 Ronald Simpson-Bey 
Research Assistant at University of Michigan
Kudos to Melissa! She is a young woman with wisdom beyond her years. Many family members use prison as an excuse to turn their backs on their loved one, which is made easier with the passage of time. Yet this young woman let her humanity dictate the order of the day. Her's is a lesson from which society, victims, offenders, and all families could learn. Thank you Melissa. . .

olanda Ortega 2nd
Director, Faithbased Mental Health Initiative; Consultant Wellness Center for Families of Faith
This column is inspiring. I have no direct experience with prison although I have 3 nephews from Michigan who have been there--one is finally out and working on building a life on the outside with family support. The other 2 are still in prison. All three have mood disorders, or "mental illness." My brother, the dad of one, was in prison 20 years, is married and has not re-offended since his release more than 20 years ago. He had depression when he committed his violent crime that sent him to prison. I live in Texas so I'm not close to the prison issue. I do know that many in prison have mental illness, and that it runs in my family. I have been a mental health advocate since the '80s and now am involved leading an effort in San Antonio, TX, to have churches become part of the safety net for those affected by serious mental illness.

Laura Lillian BestThis is a heart wrenching story. Thanx 
Carol Goldstone Incredible. I would love to meet you to learn more about this organization.
Linda Jorgenson Excellent article! Very well written. Thank you for sharing. 

Nancy Mattox

Wow how poignant
Thank you, this is very beautiful. My late husband and I did prison ministries and my heart would go out to the families when they would have to say goodbye. Those children would cling to their parents and the majority of them would leave with frail grandmothers. The guards would treat the families rude and disrespectful in many cases. Somewhere along the way the love of humanity stopped and domination and ugliness emerged. I always felt I had walked into the documentary Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes. Yes the incarcerated person did a crime but when was it okay to treat them or their families like dirt? The families suffer greatly but many don't care because the inmate is "getting what they deserve." I found this so disgraceful that I wrote to the warden. All I can say is where is the love of God?


  1. The spotlight this young woman shines on the devastation of having an incarcerated family member, especially a parent, is something that needs to be shared, heard and learned from. I am sorry for Melissa's loss but inspired by her strength of character in not only reaching out to her estranged father but in continuing on to create a relationship with him that is as touching as it is heartbreaking.

    Lisa Lawler
    The White Collar Wives Club

  2. Thanks for the kind and encouraging words Lisa!

  3. Dearest Melissa.

    I have shared your story with my own 11 year old daughter as she goes through the struggles of her father being incarcerated in hopes she would find inspiration from it. What is always heartbreaking to me is seeing young children go through so much pain at such an early age when they should enjoy being a child. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman with so much courage and strength which inspired you. You have now become your own amazing woman. Through your pain, you are blessing others which is the greatest gift we could ever give God. Forgiving your father is not only a blessing for your father, but one you will be rewarded for eternally. Thank you for sharing your story. I would love for you to talk to my daughter sometime. Many blessings to you.

    1. Lori, thank you so much for sharing this and for your kind words. I am so sorry you all are dealing with the struggles of having a family member who is incarcerated. Your strength and care for her will make a huge difference in how she comes out of this. But you are also allowed to feel broken at times, to feel defeated, to not put so much pressure on yourself and trust that your vulnerability is exactly what you need and what she needs to see. And that you are held and loved by people who know exactly what you are going through. I would absolutely love to talk with your daughter. You can email me at my email above and let me know what the best way to do that would be. Blessings to you as well.

  4. Dear Melissa, thank you for sharing your story. It's a coming of age story & yet also a story of partial redemption for your father. As a reader and white collar felon with children of my own your story fills me with sadness and a profound anger at the US Criminal Justice system. I fail to see how anyone's interests are served through a 50 year sentence where there is no element of examination to determine whether the prisoner has rehabilitated and can be released to rebuild his/her life with loved ones. It is my hope that our criminal justice system finds the pendulum swing back a little more to compassion and prudent economics vs what I can only describe as 'bloodlust' for justice and ever-increasing prison terms with little to no sane reasoning behind them.

    Thank you for sharing and I have learned from you.