A mother prepares for her son's release from prison: 'I'm hopeful, but I'm also realistic'

Stillwater prison
Pictured is a cell block at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. Charlene Briner's son is currently finishing the last weeks of his sentence at the facility.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2014

Charlene Briner's son gets out of prison in two weeks.

It won't be the first time.

"I am hopeful, as I've always been. I am relieved. I am excited," Briner told MPR News host Tom Weber. "I'm apprehensive. I'm nervous. If I'm honest with myself, and everyone else, I'm a little resentful about losing the peace and quiet that I've had without the chaos of Nick's actions."

Charlene Briner
Charlene Briner, Minnesota's Deputy Education Commissioner
Courtesy of Charlene Briner

Briner, who is Minnesota's Deputy Education Commissioner, has been writing openly on Medium about her son Nick's battles with addiction and his path through the justice system, sharing her trepidation and fears.

Nick is currently serving the final weeks of a five-and-a-half-year sentence for weapon charges. The drugs came first, before the guns, Briner said.

"Nick has gone through multiple treatments since the age of 14. We intervened early when we saw there was a clear issue. Nick has been in outpatient, inpatient, long-term treatment, as well as treatment in prison."

Addiction left him scrambling for cash, which led him to selling guns, and eventually to prison. He was let out once before, on a heavily supervised early release program, but that only lasted a little over a month.

He was just 20 then. He tried looking for a job. He tried community college. "It was overwhelming," Briner said. "Quickly, he thought that he could make some money by selling drugs again, and when you're selling drugs, you're around drugs. And when you're around drugs and you're an addict, you start to use drugs."

When his probation officer indicated there was a problem, "Nick took off."

"You can imagine what it's like for a parent to all of a sudden have a son who's a fugitive," Briner said.

"It was really frightening because at that point, we didn't know if he would come back. We didn't know if he would overdose. We didn't know if we would ever see him again."

But Nick was arrested again before too long. "Because he's not a very good criminal — he gets caught all the time," Briner laughed. A little bit of "gallows humor," she said.

Now, she's facing his return again. He will live with her, a self-described "empty nester."

"As awful as it is to visit my son in prison, there is a sense of security knowing at least I know where he is. I know that he's relatively safe, and I know I will see him on a regular basis," Briner said. "We let go of all that now to enter this new phase."

She takes strength in the fact that Nick acknowledges his mistakes. "He's not an offender who sits in there and says 'I got a bad rap' or 'I'm not guilty,'" she said. "Nick acknowledges that his actions have created the consequences that he's experiencing."

This time won't be like the last one, she hopes.

"What I think is different this time with Nick is a clear acknowledgment that he does need to sever ties to former friends, former associates. In terms of his willingness to be sober and persevere through all of these challenges — I'm hopeful, but I'm also realistic."

Looking back on her son's time in prison, she wishes there were more preparation for prisoners after their sentences. Nick was moved eight times, she said. Every time he started a job skills training course or got settled in a tutoring gig, he was moved.

"He's never, in the entire time he's been in prison, completed a training class. He's never gotten any serious job skill training," she said. He did complete his G.E.D., but more is needed.

"If we don't want to house offenders indefinitely at a cost of millions, if not billions, of dollars to the state, we need to think about what happens when they leave, and how do we help them be productive citizens," Briner said. "And I'm not necessarily convinced that Nick has gotten that kind of preparation."

For the full interview with Charlene Briner, use the audio player above.