Coping When a Loved One is in Prison

Taking Care of Yourself During a Friend or Family Member’s Jail Time

Family or Friends Behind Bars Can be a Strain – Alex on
Dealing with a family member in prison can be a challenge for those left behind, who may feel anger, grief, guilt, betrayal, overwhelmed and isolation from the community.

Staying in touch with a family member in jail can be a heartbreaking and complicated thing. Not only is it difficult to keep in touch through unpredictable phone access and prison transfers; having a husband, wife, sibling, parent, child, friend, or other relative behind bars can be a devastating emotional experience. Your loved one can’t help you through this – in fact, he or she may be part of the problem – so it’s important to learn to give yourself the care and support you’ll need throughout this trying time.

Keeping in Touch with a Loved One in Prison
Keeping in touch, whether by in-person visits, phone calls or snail mail letters, can be a double-edged sword. It’s a virtual part-time job to figure out prison schedules and which days visits are allowed; phone calls can only be made out of the prison, not in; and even sending letters can get complicated when a prisoner is moved unexpectedly.

What’s more, people change and relationships change when you’re not able to interact naturally for an extended period of time – especially when something as loaded as crime and a prison sentence stand between you but can’t easily be discussed.

Grief and Loss for a Family Member Who’s Gone to Jail
According to the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO) in Melbourne, Australia, the loss experienced by family members and those closest to someone who has been incarcerated is “similar to the death of a loved one.” You can still communicate, but it can feel like jail is a world away from daily life – and the person you loved may never seem the same after the crime he or she has committed.

When someone dies, people mourn and move on using rituals like a funeral and with the support of community and friends. But when a loved one goes to prison, that kind of acknowledgment and support is almost totally absent. In fact, the community and friends can be part of the problem if they lack sensitivity or blame the family along with the prisoner.

Guilt, Shame and the Social Stigma of Crime
If someone you love is in prison, it can be difficult to distance yourself from the guilt – and the social stigma – of what they’ve done. Woodville Community Services of Sydney, Australia, says that families of convicted offenders may feel they are somehow responsible for their loved one’s actions, or that they are sullied by their connection to someone in jail.

In addition to these kinds of recriminations from within, fear and the media’s portrayal of offenders can lead community, family, and friends to turn against those closest to an inmate. VACRO says, “you can feel you are being judged along side the offender.”

Supporting Yourself and Taking Care of Your Emotional Needs
Parents, children, spouses and partners in prison need your help and support – but equally (or more) important is learning to take care of yourself during this challenging time. You may feel confused, angry, lonely, ashamed, worried, desperate, and scared all at once, or in turn – all of these responses are normal and legitimate under the circumstances.

A few self-care tips from organizations that offer support to families of prisoners:

  • Find someone you can talk to honestly about how you feel, be it a counselor or a trusted friend, but don’t feel you have to tell everyone. Some people will respond with love and support while others will distance themselves, so learn to rely on those who are accepting and who offer help.
  • Give yourself permission to feel the way you do, even if that means feeling angry at your loved one for leaving you, or overwhelm at your life as it is now.
  • Take care of your survival needs and your emotional needs with at least as much care as you give to the emotional needs of your absent partner or loved one.
  • Seek financial support if the loss of your family member or partner’s income leaves you on shaky financial ground.
  • You may find it helpful to seek out online resources and forums for family members and loved ones of inmates. There are plenty of people going through the same thing you are, and it may help to share and read some of their stories.

Victoria Law Foundation, “VACRO Factsheet4: Living with a family member in prison,” Melbourne, Australia, January 7, 2009.
Woodville Community Services Inc., Pamphlet: “Do you have a family member in prison?”, Sydney, Australia, 2009.

Mar 27, 2009 by: Victoria Anisman-Reiner posted on Suite101

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