No one believes that incarceration sets people up for a healthy or successful future. Family members of incarcerated individuals, especially the children of incarcerated parents, face complicated threats that affect their emotional, physical, and educational well-being.
Unique Challenges Faced by Families of Incarcerated Individuals
Family members of incarcerated individuals have been referred to as the hidden victims of the criminal justice system. There is a callous belief that those who are behind bars belong there, so when their family members lament the situation they face, they receive little personal support. Family members do not have the access to social mechanisms that are available for crime victims or for their incarcerated family members.
Parents who know that their children are suffering because they are incarcerated face a heavy emotional load. It can be heart wrenching for them to hear about the economic hardship, expulsion from school, or criminal activity that their children are becoming involved in. The truth is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict how each child will fare when their parent is incarcerated, be it intermittently or continually. However, for most parents the emotional toll of being away from their children is intense.
How Prison Changes People
The longer and the harsher a person’s prison sentence is, the more their personality changes. This change makes it difficult for them to reintegrate into society. You don’t get to choose who you are round, what you eat, or where you go. Life is constant suspicion, and love or gentle human touch is almost nonexistent.
In order to cope, prisoners in this environment have to change and have to adapt, especially if they are facing long-term sentences. This has forced psychologists to rethink what they believe about the human personality. It was once thought that a person’s personality was fixed in adulthood. However, after examining the effect that prison life has had on prisoners, it becomes clear that a person’s behavior changes in consequential ways based on the role they are in in life. Prison is a structured yet socially threatening environment.
Ways of Supporting Loved Ones in Prison
It’s understandable that family members are concerned about the effect that prison life is having on their incarcerated loved ones. While the ways family members can help are limited, there are some things they can do.
For example, keep family members in your life. Contact, even if it is sporadic, helps prisoners remember that they are more than just an ID number. When people are completely cut off from family, the only source of support is prison politics. And the results are usually not happy.
When visiting incarcerated individuals, don’t hesitate to talk about the good things that you are doing. Prisoners often live vicariously through their friends and family members. So feel free to vividly describe the delicious pizza, cheeseburgers, and cold beer that you enjoy.
Send pictures of home. It can be difficult for prisoners to remember what the world is like outside of the four walls they are confined in. Pictures, even of everyday things, allow them to take a mental vacation out of prison.
Prisoners have limited access to legal means of supporting themselves financially. Family members can help by sending money to a correctional facility via channels that have been approved by said correctional facility. Just a little bit of money can go a long way in making the life of an incarcerated individual easier.
Building Blocks for a Successful Future
The loneliness, anxiety, and fear associated with incarceration can impact the mental and emotional state of an incarcerated individual. The longer they are incarcerated, the harder it is for them to acclimate when they get out. Family members who take the time to visit their incarcerated loved ones, send them letters, or send them cards help keep them grounded in reality.
It can sometimes be difficult for family to forgive loved ones who have engaged in heinous crimes and are now incarcerated. While not everyone makes mistakes that land them in prison, committing errors is part of the human condition. Successfully reentering society means that an incarcerated individual needs to learn to forgive themselves and rejoin mainstream society. This self forgiveness can be a lot easier for a person to attain when they feel like those who they love have forgiven them as well.