Parenting isn’t easy, and it’s even harder from behind bars. This local jail is making staying connected easier

Julie Smith shows photos of her sons from her cell at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. (WYDaily/ Lucretia Cunningham)
Julie Smith shows photos of her sons from her cell at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail. (WYDaily/ Lucretia Cunningham)

While many are gathering this Christmas, nearly 400 of those families’ loved ones will spend the holiday behind bars at Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail.

These inmates are sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, and like Linda Asbury and Julie Smith, are parents and even grandparents who for Christmas were given a free five-minute video phone call.

Jail policy prohibits Smith to communicate with her two oldest sons who are also incarcerated but for her 15- and 16-year-old sons she said “that five minutes means the world to me.”

“Knowing that they’re okay, even if just for a minute…it’s amazing knowing they’re okay,” she said.

Tony Pham, the jail’s superintendent, said maintaining or repairing those family connections is essential to an inmate’s rehabilitation, which is why he’s worked to change the culture in the facility, making those values part of the jail’s mission.

“We as a facility take no position one way or another on why they’re here,” Pham said. “I freely accept the obligation, even though we’re not required, to figure out ways to help them maintain that contact.”

Pham implemented free video calls for inmates last year for “important family holidays” including Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Thanksgiving.

A recent partnership with House of Mercy provided 500 “holiday kits” for inmates that included stamped envelopes, or another mode of communication without requiring the inmates to have the means to pay for a stamp.

Both women are recent graduates of the “We Are in This Together” (WAITT) intensive addiction program where they also attend parenting classes.

The classes help inmates develop communication skills for them to have meaningful conversations in the short periods of phone or weekly visitation time they have with their children.

“Sometimes parenting triggers the need to medicate because the pressures are there,” Pham said.

Both women said the worst part is knowing they’ve caused pain to their children by being incarcerated but can’t do anything to take the pain away.

With teenage sons who still need discipline and structure, Smith said the program has provided tools to help her get through tough phone calls when her kids tested how far they could push knowing their mom wasn’t in the position to push back.

“I’m going to hang up on you and what are you going to about it?” Smith said of her 16-year-old son.

“Learning how to be a good disciplinarian is a huge plus for me but also how to communicate being incarcerated with questions to ask and how to answer when we’re asked a question instead of promising I’m never going to do this again,” Smith said.

More than 27 women started the 12-week program but only seven would be able to adhere to additional rules and regulations required to stay in it and graduate — a graduation ceremony was held Dec. 13.

Even though her two children are adults now, Asbury said it doesn’t negate their feelings of abandonment or “why doesn’t she love me?” while she’s incarcerated but finishing the WAITT program has provided them hope for the future.

With her first grandchild on the way, Asbury said she has the confidence she’ll be able to overcome addiction and do things differently as she’s set to enter WAITT’s “Real Life” program with job assistance and transitional housing.

“They see that I’m taking that extra step not just going to be released and pretend like everything is perfect, which it’s not,” she said. “They’re excited for that.”

When it comes to the holidays, Asbury and Smith said they try their hardest to think of it as just another day — “I don’t miss them on Christmas than I do any other day,” Asbury said.

Smith said it helps to know her kids are enjoying the day with other family members but in the end, “I am incarcerated but still, the bottom line is, I am their mother.”

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