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How To Parent From Prison And Other Advice For Life Inside

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When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

About six years ago, Johnathon Shillings was on trial for his involvement in the homicide of a man in Harris County, Texas. The now-28-year-old, who already had been to prison twice before, pleaded guilty to helping transport and dump the victim's body. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

During those five years, Johnathon says something in him changed. This time, he had a little daughter — Victoria — to think about.

So in prison, he decided to change things: He worked on his anger issues, he enrolled in an entrepreneurship program. And he kept in touch with his daughter.

There are a lot of people who go to prison who want to do what Johnathon did: change their lives, leave prison and never go back.

Like Johnathon, Macario Gonzales Jr. is a father, to two young daughters. He's also serving prison time — he just began a seven-year sentence for multiple drug charges and an assault on a police officer that occurred during an arrest.

And like Johnathon, Macario wants to turn his life around in prison.

"Gangster life, it's not me," Macario tells Johnathon.

One way to help himself get through it and stay focused, says Johnathon, is to "be confident that your mistake was just a mistake, and it's not gonna define you, and that there's life for you and your children past this point."

Advice from Johnathon Shillings

On what the first day is like

Soon as you get there, they're going to strip you down, butt naked. You're going to be in a big, massive room, probably a warehouse-type gym, concrete, with a whole bunch of individual cages. Then, they're going to start pushing you in there — 10 or 15 at a time. Slowly, they're going to start calling your name, everybody go take a shower. And the first thing they're gonna do is give you a razor ... and they shave your whole head. ... Probably about 85 percent of the time, they miss patches and spots.

Then after that, they push you down even further down the assembly line, and there's gonna be a guard there, and he's gonna go through all your property. And it's crazy, these are your only belongings that you have: pictures, letters, your Bible. You'll see how these officers just pick it up and toss it and say, "You have too many pictures, throw this over here into the trash." And there is nothing you can do about it.

On how people are perceived in prison

If you go in there, [and] you prove as an authentic person, like, "I'm just a man that made a mistake and I'm changing my life" — prison is so sensitive to feelings and auras. They can pick up on that — like, "this is a really genuine person, and so we're not going to push these prison ways on him."

On how to not be a target

There are predators in prison. ... The ones they mostly prey on are ones who are really, really friendly. Sharing all your commissary. You met somebody at the domino table and you're like, "Hey, you do want some coffee?" That's a normal thing, you're having a casual conversation, you want to offer somebody something. But certain people will [take that as weakness.]

On how to be a good father from prison

Just develop a very sacred and special place in your mind and your heart for your kids. My daughter was 3 or 4, and I would envision her going to college. And I would envision, what college is she going to? Basically I had this impression in my mind of my daughter as a young professional.

And then, I would work on me. One of my mentors told me, "Man, I used to walk everywhere as if my daughter is right next to me." ... So, I would start acting like my daughter was right next to me. So what that means is, I wouldn't cuss anymore. I wouldn't tell crude, perverted jokes or even watch crazy stuff on TV. Because I wanted to start representing myself as the father that my daughter deserves.

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