Women at the Ohio Reformatory for Women use clear plastic trash bags as ponchos during a rainy Parent Day event hosted Saturday by Prison Fellowship, a Christian non-profit that advocates for justice reform. The program featured testimony from former inmates, resources from Rock City Church of Columbus and a performance by 216 Stix, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ drumline. Nearly 400 women filled the ORW yard during the event. (Journal-Tribune photo by Kayleen Petrovia)
On Saturday, hundreds of women gathered to share their parenting tips.
In the yard of the Ohio Reformatory for Women, these women weren’t seen as prisoners, but first as mothers.
“You didn’t cease to be a parent just because you came in here,” said Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Annette Chambers-Smith.
“You have this chance,” she said. “I don’t want you to squander it.”
Leah Howard, a former inmate at ORW, knows this fact well.
“Your kids need you to be whole,” she said.
Howard was one of several speakers during the first post-COVID, in-person event hosted by Prison Fellowship, a Christian non-profit organization that advocates for justice reform.
Saturday’s Parent Day event featured testimony from former inmates, information from Rock City Church of Columbus and a musical performance by 216 Stix, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ drumline.
Each shared a message summarized by Prison Fellowship Ambassador Martha Ackerman: “You all are worthy of love and capable of change.”
Howard, previously a pediatric nurse, was married for 21 years when she filed for divorce. She said her ex-husband began to stalk her and she ultimately shot him.
Throughout her four years in prison, Howard said she decided to “love one person at a time.”
“I said (to God), ‘I’ve always wanted to go on a mission trip,” (and) He said, ‘You are,’” Howard said of her time in prison.
She said she walked around the yard every day, inviting other women to join her in conversation. Soon, she found them sharing their life stories with her.
Prior to her sentence, Howard said she thought all prisoners were “horrible people” who “deserved to rot,” but she learned many were “some of the most beautiful people.”
“Whatever you’ve done, it does not define who you are,” she told the women at ORW.
Howard said the transformation in her own life is a testament to the growth that can take place behind prison walls.
“Every woman can change their life in here forever,” she said.
Along with working on her struggles and building community with others, Howard said she made sure to invest in her children during her sentence.
Despite letters and phone calls over four years, when Howard was released in 2015, she said she was devastated to hear her daughter’s first words to her: “I don’t know you and I don’t trust you.”
Though painful, Howard said she realized that her children also needed space to grow in the way she had.
She encouraged the women at ORW to create a strong foundation while in prison and use those skills to pour into her their children until they earn their trust once again.
“Sometimes the only thing we can do for our children anyways is pray,” she said.
Vanessa Franklin agreed.
Before she was the National Director of Operations for Prison Fellowship, Franklin said she was better known as Oklahoma Inmate #59371.
Franklin said her time in prison allowed her to grow personally and become the mother she desired to be.
“You are setting the steps to have your family unified and stronger than ever,” Franklin said.
Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Program played a crucial role in Franklin’s efforts to connect with her children while she was in prison.
The program provides Christmas gifts for children of incarcerated parents, along with a personal note from their mother or father.
Franklin choked up as she explained her children’s first Christmas while she was in prison. She said her daughters gathered together and prayed, “Lord, how are we going to do this without her?”
Her children received gifts and notes from Angel Tree that day, on her behalf.
“No one wanted to take my place, they just wanted to fill in the gaps,” Franklin said.
Both Howard and Franklin said they now have strong, healthy relationships with their children and grandchildren. Howard said she has even developed a friendship with her ex-husband.
James Ackerman, President and CEO of Prison Fellowship, said stories like theirs have the outcomes they hope for every woman and man who is incarcerated.
He said he feels an outpouring of empathy for those who are incarcerated, because he sees a reflection of himself.
“Like me, they have made mistakes. Like me, they have hopes,” Ackerman said.
And like any parent, he said, they are trying to teach their children not to make the same mistakes they have.
“Ending the cycle of abuse, trauma and addiction… starts with you and your children,” Ackerman said to the women at ORW.