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Life Inside

Why Mothers Are the Unsung Heroes of Prison

“I’ve seen disasters averted because an inmate said these simple words: 'What would your mother think?'”

Every day, come rain, sleet or snow, worried mothers flood prison visiting rooms across our great nation.

They sacrifice their time and hard-earned money to see their “babies” who have somehow ended up on the wrong side of the law.

These unsung heroes hold our prisons together, though the authorities, who search them before every visit, may think otherwise. I’ve seen disasters averted, assaults stopped, even a gang war set aside because another inmate said these five simple words: “What would your mother think?”

In here, oftentimes, the only person we have left is our mom. She sends us encouraging cards, much-needed food and warm clothing. She picks up our children and reminds them that Daddy still loves them. She acts as our conduit to the free world. Without her, we would never know that Cousin John finally married his high school sweetheart, or that our favorite aunt, Juanita, passed quietly in her sleep. We’d never know how much we are still loved, and still thought of with respect and dignity. We’d never know what type of world awaits us.

We’ve pierced our mothers’ hearts again and again with our selfish foolishness—not just our crimes—yet, for some reason that only a mom can comprehend, they continue to hug us and kiss us and forgive.

It is this unyielding love that shifts our moral tillers and sets so many of us back on the path to redemption. Over the years, many of the biggest changes I’ve accomplished in my incarcerated life have started with these other simple words from my mother:

“Jerry, what about this...?” “Have you considered...?” “I know things seem..., but believe me when I say…”

I wouldn't be the loving, caring individual I am today—yes, even here in prison, where I’m a good friend and neighbor and contribute to the world through my writing—without the guidance my mother has drilled into me until it stuck. I often recall a phone call she and I shared several years ago when I find myself feeling, for whatever reason, like it’s not my duty to care about and love all those around me.

“Hi, Jer,” my mom said, accepting my (at that time, $7.50-per-15 minutes) call.

“Hi, Mom,” I grumbled. Back then I was seldom in a good mood.

“What’s the matter?” Her voice sounded worried.

“Nothing.” I sighed. “It’s nothing serious. Mike keeps borrowing stuff from me and he hasn’t paid me back, so now I have nothing to eat.”

Mike is a good friend of mine and my mom knows this. She also knows both of Mike’s parents have passed away.

“Well, what’s he borrowing stuff for?” she asked.

“He got fired from his job ... You know how it is, he needs food and soap and stuff.”

My mom tsked. “Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is it’s my money," I said sharply.

“Your money?” my mom asked, voice hard. “More likely my money, or your father’s.” She sighed. “Look, Jer. Mike’s your friend—but even if he wasn’t, he’s in need of food and soap. The world, same out here as in there, would be such a better place if we helped those we cared about. You do care about your friend, right?”

“Yes, Mom, I do,” I said, overcome with the shame only a mother can generate.

“I thought so. So stop your bitching and do what’s right and help him out.”

"Thanks, Mom," I said, not completely sure at the time that she was right.

But as the years passed and I began, more and more often, to think of others first, her words proved true. Thank you, Mom, indeed.

Of course, I do still have friends who disagree. One of them said just yesterday (which gave me the idea for this essay): “Why do you keep giving shit to that crazy, broke-ass beggar? It’s like giving a stray cat milk, he just keeps coming back.”

Like I always do when one of my peers in here challenges my food, soap and toothpaste donation policy, I laughed. “I don’t do it for him. I do it for me… Plus, my mom told me to.”

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That last line always hooks them: Mom said to do it. Who can argue with that, especially a momma’s boy, which almost all convicts are?

To quote the film adaptation of "3:10 to Yuma"—originally by Michigan's late, great Elmore Leonard—“even bad men love their mommas.”

Without our mothers’ guiding light, many of us would surely founder on the dark shoals that lurk just beneath the surface of prison life. The violence, solitude and emotionlessness would swallow us utterly whole.

Over the years, I’ve also known several real monsters, and without exception, every single one of them began their prison sentences without anyone loving them, and continued doing their time in the same loveless fashion. When the chance arises, I make it a point to ask these monsters whether, if their mother had still been in the picture, they believe they would have behaved differently.

Almost all of them say yes, for what that’s worth. One, an older, now-decrepit predator of a man who has spent 50 years behind bars, and who has committed murder, rape and assault, actually broke down and cried.

“I can’t believe all the shit I did,” he muttered, tears sliding down his cheeks. “And for what? To get a blow (dose of heroin)?” He shook his head. “My momma would skin me if she knew even half of it.”

He took a deep breath and stared up at the sky. “I often pray God sends me straight to hell just so I don’t have to see her.”

We sat at a picnic table away from any other convicts, I with a pencil and notepad, he in a state-issued wheelchair that had seen better days. Nearby, sparrows chirped in a tree, and behind us, near the prison garden, dogs frolicked in a pen. Off to our left a ways, some young inmates played basketball on a scorching hot blacktop.

How incomprehensible of a statement was that? How might this man’s life have been different had his mother been around to offer him hugs and kisses and forgiveness?

Either way, as a society, I believe we owe these mothers—and all mothers—a thank you for being the moral rock upon which we all stand. Instead of making it harder for our moms and other family members to visit us, or forcing them to visit us via video chat. Instead of making it more expensive for them to accept our phone calls or send us emails. Instead of making it damn near impossible to mail us a letter due to all the crazy rules like only blue or black ink, only white envelopes, no photographs on glossy photo paper.

Maybe we should consider just how much positive influence these wonderful ladies have on the penal system, every day of the year.

Jerry Metcalf, 44, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony; he was convicted of both in 1996.