It is inevitable that the annual rite of Mother’s Day changes some when children fly the coop and Mom is faced with an empty nest. It is so much more so when Mom leaves her full nest for a season in the barred digs of a federal prison.
“We did things as mothers for ourselves,” said El Cajon resident Shannon Brown, who, after her conviction on a drug-related crime, served 18 months at the 10-story Federal Detention Center, SeaTac in Washington state.
“We would make cards for each other and for our own moms. For Mother’s Day it was just all about each other. We looked after each other as fellow inmates. We spent time together, looked at each other’s pictures of our kids, shared stories and cried with each other.”
An addict for 17 years, Brown found herself in a federal lock-up in San Diego just a few days after Mother’s Day in 2009. Her children were just 11 and 3.
Charged with drug importation, Brown faced 10 years but found favor with a judge who sentenced her to 24 months in October of that year.
“Standing before the judge, I felt very scared,” she said.
Two months later, just weeks before Christmas, Brown turned herself in to serve her sentence. While Brown spent two Mother’s Days behind bars, her children stayed with various family members.
“My fears during my incarceration were, of course, my kids’ well-being,” their mother said. “I have to tell you, I was more worried about them in the world then I was about myself. I was under lock and key, but anything can happen when you’re out and about.”
Regular phone calls home eased some of the tension, but also served as a constant reminder of their emotional and physical separation.
“I called and talked to them every day, and missed them more than words can say,” she said. “But I had no other choice than to trust in the Lord that they would be OK.
“I didn’t really question God why this was happening, I knew this was the only way that I would ever be able to be the mother and person that I needed to be. I knew God had a plan for me. That’s why He saved me.”
During her incarceration, Brown said she stayed busy taking personal development classes and attending chapel.
“You don’t want to be in there with idle time, cause then you just go stir crazy,” Brown, 37, said.
A mandated drug education program helped Brown dig deep into the patterns that fostered her addiction.
“We focused on what led up to that point and how we are going to have to rebuild our relationships once we got out,” she said. “So we got to really look at ourselves, step aside from ourselves, and look deep into who we were. At that point I had no idea who I was. I had totally lost sight of who Shannon was.”
Letting go of the past
In a strange way, Brown’s confinement managed to heal childhood wounds as she bonded with women who had similar experiences.
“As a kid, when I was growing up, I was very unpopular, I didn’t have any friends,” she said. “I was an outcast. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was kind of like an oddball. When I was in (prison) I made friends with everybody. Nobody judged me in there like when I was a kid.”
Although much of her time was structured, there was no escaping the reality of being confined. In those moments when she was biding time in her cell, Brown loved to glance through the slotted external windows that cast the only natural light inside a prison that had no outside access for roommates.
“I was in there a year and half and I never got to go outside,’ she said. “I could see outside until they covered the windows.”
Prison officials were forced to frost the windows, she said, to keep the women from communicating with the nearby men’s block.
Of all the activities and diversions, Brown said it was chapel that ultimately made most the most influence on her broken soul. Although Brown, her mother and kids began regularly attending The Salvation Army Church at the El Cajon Corps office two years before her arrest, she admitted her longstanding addition to drugs proved to be a persistent deterrent to cleaning up her life.
“I never knew that the Salvation Army was a church,” the former inmate said. “For the longest time I thought it was a thrift store.
“I had wanted to quit using, but I didn’t know how. I know now and I knew when I was arrested that God was saving me from myself. He literally snatched me out of the grips of death. Being sent to prison was a blessing. I learned how to be clean and sober, I learned who I was, I learned how what I was doing was not only affecting me, but more so my kids and the ones I love.”
In the dark days of separation from her children, Brown acknowledged she also wrestled with her actions as a daughter. Even though her childhood was heavily influenced by her parents’ rocky relationship, Brown and her mother were always tight.
“My mom was so sad and broken that I was in prison,” she said. “I had to keep reassuring her that I was OK. She was so worried about me.”
With good behavior credits, Brown was released from prison six months early. Just days after Mother’s Day 2011, Brown took her first breath of fresh air in 18 months. With her addiction to drugs behind her, the repentant mom began looking for work.
“When I first got out it was so hard,” she said. “I mean, I put in applications everywhere and nobody would give me a break. I would do interviews and then my being just released from prison would come out and they would turn me down. They wouldn’t say that was the reason why, but I never heard from them again.”
In the meantime, she headed back to her home church where she began volunteering and working on earning back her family’s trust.
“My mom was deeply affected by me going to prison, and rebuilding my relationship with her and my kids took some time, and a great deal of tears,” she said. “My mom and I have always been very close, and the pain I caused her and my kids —still to this day—makes me feel awful.”
Over time, and without any solid job prospects, Brown volunteered her way into various paid jobs with the El Cajon Salvation Army, which earlier this year offered her a job with the center’s after-school program.
“Of course, I jumped on that because any opportunity to be at the church was where I wanted to be,” she said. “I had been saying that all along. ‘This is where I want to work, this is where I want to work.’ I’m there and I’m just so thankful that, ‘Wow, I’ve achieved something here.’”
A new outlook
Since her release, Brown acknowledges that the meaning of Mother’s Day has shifted as she works to repair her once-broken relationships.
“For me, it’s all about my mom because she stood by me the whole time,” she said. “She was so heartbroken and devastated that I was in there and she has been such a blessing to me. She never lost faith or hope. (She knew I was not) going to go back to my old ways.”
Her mother, Kathy Redden, said she never really doubted her daughter’s ability to battle past her addictions and the stigma of incarceration. Truthfully, she saw the prison sentence as more of a blessing than a hindrance.
“In a way I was relieved because I thought, ‘Well, now she is going to have to pay the price,’” Redden said. “I was scared for her. I was afraid she would get beat up. I was afraid she would beat somebody else up and get a longer term or something like that. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.”
Despite warnings from friends that Brown was likely to falter again, her mother firmly believed her daughter had learned her lesson.
“She had her children taken away from her,” Redden said. “She had her life taken away from her. I knew that this would not happen again. I knew that this is what it took to make her realize that you can’t do something like this and not go through the consequences; but I knew she would learn from it because she’s smart.
“And now I just can’t believe how wonderful, how beautiful, how straight forward, how honest, how concerned she is with everything. She is, by the definition of the word, the most changed person but yet, at the same time, the same.”
A special gift
While tradition has it that children shower their moms with gifts, Brown said she is focused on gifting her children with a whole and healthy mom.
“Getting to be with my kids and being the mom that they needed and they deserved all this time is very special to me,” she said.
Even so, there are still challenging moments for her oldest daughter who is still working through her bitterness and disappointment.
“My teenager, she was really broken and we are still working on our relationship. She still has quite a wall built up so being a mom to her and showing her that I’m sorry for what I did (is my focus).”
Even now, nearly three years removed from her prison stint, Brown considers how far she has come and the plight of some of the hard-core women she left behind in Seattle.
“Some of the women in there, they had kids and some of them were never going to see their kids again because of the crimes they had committed and they didn’t seem to care,” Brown recalled. “Some of the women in there were just so …like, using the place like a revolving door. They were just going to go back out there and do it all over again because they were making so much money doing whatever they doing.
“I thought, ‘Wow, but not me. You will never see me in here again. Never.’
“I am doing everything in my power not to go there again. It was the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had in my life.”