A lost tooth, homework help and sport practices — just a few things an incarcerated parent misses out on.
For the last three years, Crystal Michelle Lee, 32, has been in the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville after pleading guilty to intimidation with a dangerous weapon, a felony. She is serving a minimum sentence until March 2022.
In 2018, Lee also was charged with first-degree murder for her involvement in the killing of Noah Campbell, 19, outside a Des Moines gas station. Police said she drove the car to ambush him, but was not the shooter. She is negotiating a plea deal.
“I by no means diminish or misguide my responsibility for where I was or what happened, but the county attorneys know exactly what took place and what my role was,” Lee said in a video interview. “The person that lost their life was someone’s child, and I look at it as if that was my child.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the imprisoned mother of five has not seen her children in-person since March. Her children range from 5 to 17 years old.
Lee said she tries to speak with them every day, though not always at the same time due to their schedules. Even so, Lee has missed some key moments in her children’s lives.
“On a video visit once, one of the officers in the room looked at me and said he could absolutely tell that I was a mom,” Lee said. Her son was standing on something not sturdy during a call. Her immediate reaction was to say, “‘Stop it, get down, you’re going to break your neck.’ It made me feel like I was still parenting.”
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A story like Lee’s rings true for many across the nation. According to the Sentencing Project, 1 in 12 U.S. children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.
When Lee was initially incarcerated, she recalls her son being removed from her hands as she was being taken to another room.
“I’ve never been away from my kids before — this is very new,” Lee said. “I’ve learned a lot, but they have learned a lot also.”
Lee’s five children have all grown the last few years without their mother by their side.
They live with Lee’s stepmother, who she refers to as her mom. Lee believes she failed them with her charges and being taken away.
“You can’t replace time, you don’t get that back,” Lee said. “I won’t fail them ever again. I have failed them as a mother. Living with guilt as a mother is hard.”
Deputy Warden Lorie Woodard at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women said in a phone interview that most of the efforts at the facility go into reentry. The average length of stay at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women is 10 months.
Woodard said there are psychologists available on staff for any issues that may arise, and areas where mothers can interact with their children when there are in-person visits.
Lee said that she still is able to ask her children questions daily and make sure they are doing OK, at least remotely.
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, her concerns have shifted to making sure her children wear masks and doing what she can to keep them healthy.
“I still parent,” she said.
Currently, visits at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women are all done virtually. Woodard said this allows an opportunity for incarcerated mothers to see their child’s environment.
“(The facility) has many women that get to see their kids’ bedroom or kitchen or any other space,” Woodard said.
Lee has gotten to see her children’s environment at her stepmom’s household, something she otherwise hadn’t been able to see for the last two years.
When she does get out of prison, she said there will be many hugs and making up for lost time.
“You can’t replace time, you don’t get that back,” Lee said. “This is temporary. I made a promise to my kids that if I have to spend every day for the rest of my life making up for every moment that I have been here, I will spend every day making up for the moments I spent here.”
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