When a loved one is incarcerated, it can be challenging for the entire family to adjust to the change. Everyday activities, holidays, and family gatherings may feel different without them present. It’s crucial to consider their feelings and provide support and assistance throughout their sentence.
While there are numerous ways to help your loved one in prison, this guide will highlight some of the most impactful methods of offering support. By following these steps, you can demonstrate your care and help your family member feel valued during this difficult time.
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Standing Strong – Coping with an Incarcerated Loved One
It is easy to become overwhelmed when your loved one is incarcerated. You are carrying a heavy burden, and your resources, as well as your patience, likely are stretched thin.
Because this is such a stressful time — mentally, emotionally, physically and financially – it is critical that you actively take steps to care for yourself and your children, and to support your loved one, so that when he or she is released, the transition and return to family life will be as smooth as possible. This booklet outlines nine tactics to help you carry on when your loved one is incarcerated:
I. SUPPORT YOUR LOVED ONE
Maintain regular communication.
Visit your loved one.
Send money, if you can.
Encourage your loved one to take advantage of opportunities for self-improvement.
II. CARE FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR CHILDREN
Make a budget.
Pay particular attention to your mental health and emotional well-being.
Give your children extra attention and support.
Don’t try to go it alone.
III. APPENDIX: BUDGET BASICS, WITH WORKSHEET
I. SUPPORT YOUR LOVED ONE
Much of what you do to support your loved one will echo back to provide comfort and support to you as well.
MAINTAIN REGULAR COMMUNICATION.
Incarceration is the removal of a person from society. The most effective means of getting by – for both you and your incarcerated loved one – is to maintain frequent and quality communication, to help close the gap and minimize feelings of isolation. In fact, research shows that regular communication increases the likelihood of long-term success and health for the incarcerated person and his or her family.
Writing letters or emails is the most affordable means of communication, but phone calls allow for more direct, fulfilling interactions. Prisons partner with private companies, such as IC Solutions, to provide phone services. Make sure you understand the fee structure imposed by the telephone company, as it can be confusing and exorbitant. In addition, “video visitation” and “e-messaging” services are available in many facilities. E-messaging is similar to email; video visitation is like using Skype or Facetime to interact with your loved one from home. Again, be sure you know the rates for these services before you use them; electronic communication services can be very expensive.
VISIT YOUR LOVED ONE.
While video visitation is a good option if you are unable to travel to visit your loved one in person, nothing can provide the intimacy and comfort of physically being in the same room. However, in order to have a successful visit, you must plan ahead. Here are a few tips:
SCHEDULE YOUR VISIT; DON’T JUST SHOW UP.
How often you are permitted to visit (and call) depends on the rules of the facility where your loved one is housed. Generally speaking, the rules reflect the facility’s level of security, so that maximum security prisons maintain the strictest visitation/call policies, while jails are more accessible. In almost every instance, you will have to register or apply for visitation in advance, and the corrections staff may need time to notify and get consent for visitation from your loved one. The facility where your loved one is incarcerated likely has its visitation rules and policies posted online. It’s also a good idea to call the facility before your first visit, to avoid any surprises when you arrive.
Try to get to the facility at least 15 minutes ahead of your scheduled visit. You may have to stand in line, and you will need time to get through security.
Make sure you bring valid, government-issued identification; you may need to bring a passport or birth certificate for any children who are visiting with you. Many local jails do not allow cell phones into the building. The best practice is to leave your technology at home or in the car. Some jails have lockers to store your belongings during the visit, so it’s a good idea to bring coins. Do not wear clothing with metal (underwire bras) or excessive jewelry, including body piercings, to avoid setting off metal detectors. Do not bring anything into the facility (e.g., food, cigarettes, gifts) without prior permission.
HAVE AN IDEA OF WHAT YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT.
No matter how solid your relationship, visitation is likely to be awkward and uncomfortable at best, especially in the beginning. It may be helpful to make a list of things you want to discuss before visiting. Neutral topics, like news and sports, may help ease you both into the conversation and provide a sense of normalcy, while making your loved one feel connected with the outside world. Getting your loved one’s input on family matters – e.g., how to allocate the family’s budget or how to deal with issues affecting children or other family members — will help your loved one preserve a sense of purpose and belonging, and may ease your burden of being the “sole” decision-maker. If your loved one expects to be released soon, you can use this time to work on a release plan that will provide support and aid in reintegration.
SEND MONEY, IF YOU CAN.
Money can go a long way toward making incarceration more tolerable. It can be used to buy food, communication supplies (e.g. stamps, envelopes, and writing utensils), clothing and shoes, entertainment, hygiene products, and other goods available from the facility’s commissary. Inmates are not permitted to carry cash; instead, you must deposit funds into an inmate account by phone or online or, possibly, at a kiosk at the facility when you visit in person.
Some facilities use their own money transfer platform. In most places, however, the corrections system partners with a private company, e.g., Western Union or JPay, to provide money transfer services. (JPay, for example, is a private company that contracts with corrections facilities to provide payment portals, communications services and other services to inmates.) As always, know what this service is going to cost you. Look up the fee charged per deposit, and contact a representative from the prison or jail to see if there are cheaper alternatives available. If you believe that your loved one can responsibly manage funds over time, it may be cost-effective to make larger, less frequent deposits in order to limit the total number of transactional fees charged. To get a sense of what these fees might be, you can view availability and pricing for JPay’s money transfer services here: https://www.jpay.com/PMoneyTransfer.aspx
ENCOURAGE YOUR LOVED ONE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF OPPORTUNITIES
Most facilities offer opportunities for continuing education and vocational training. Pursuing an education can restore an inmate’s purpose in life and build confidence. In fact, studies show that active participation in these programs increases the likelihood of avoiding disciplinary trouble and successfully reentering society after release. If your loved one is serving a long sentence, educational achievement while incarcerated may be viewed as a sign of rehabilitation, if he or she applies for clemency, parole, or a sentence reduction. It also sets a positive example for the children of incarcerated parents.
The range of educational programming varies significantly across states and facilities. The Federal Bureau of Prisons offers GED tests for a modest price per module. Most state prisons and county jails also administer the GED, and many provide GED prep classes. Earning a GED will allow your loved one to pursue a college degree, whether in prison or upon release. In some states, completing a GED may earn an inmate several months off of his or her sentence.
Like academic programs, vocational training helps give meaning and purpose to inmates’ lives and improves their ability to find employment once they are released. Programming varies from facility to facility, but many state correctional institutions offer training in a wide range of areas, from business to carpentry to restaurant trades.
Another way for your loved one to pass the time in a meaningful fashion is to participate in community service activities. Again, programming varies widely across facilities, but there are at least some opportunities available in most facilities. Examples including mentoring younger incarcerated persons and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for low-income families.
One activity that incarcerated persons often find especially rewarding is spending time with animals, especially dogs. In particular, dogs can have a profoundly positive impact on individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some facilities offer programs that allow inmates to work with and train dogs. For example, inmates in Florida facilities have access to a program called Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills (“TAILS””), which brings in at-risk dogs that might otherwise be euthanized. Such programs are both therapeutic for the inmate and valuable for the populations whom the dogs ultimately serve.
SUBSTANCE ABUSE TREATMENT
Substance abuse treatment is available in virtually all correctional facilities across the country, for any inmate who is willing to participate. Some states, such as New York, offer a broad range of treatment programs of varying length and intensity. Most facilities support Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
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II. CARE FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR CHILDREN
MAKE A BUDGET.
Financial worries often accompany the emotional pain of a loved one’s incarceration, especially if the incarcerated person provided some or all of the family’s income.
One of your first tasks should be to create a budget. If you are unsure about how to begin, many resources are available online. Just Google something along the lines of “how to make a family budget,” and find a method that works for you (see, e.g., https://www.mint.com/budgeting-3/how-to-create-a-budget-step-by-step). If you know someone who works as an accountant or has financial planning experience or is just more money-savvy than you, reach out and ask for help. In addition to these resources, we have included a simple budget worksheet at the end of this booklet, which you may find useful.
Your budget must account for your everyday expenses, as well as new expenses arising from your loved one’s incarceration. As noted above, it can be surprisingly expensive to support a loved one in jail or prison. (It is not uncommon, for example, to spend several hundred dollars each month just to communicate with an inmate.) If you have outstanding legal expenses, those also must be accounted for. Have an open, honest conversation with your loved one about any bills that need to be paid; if outstanding debt goes unaddressed, it could damage your credit.
Once you have a budget, you can look for ways to cut costs and stretch your dollar. For example, depending on where you live, one option might be to sell your vehicle(s) and rely on public transportation. Cut back on dining out, entertainment and other unnecessary expenses. Make sure you’re getting the best deal on necessary services, like phone/internet service.
Caution: While sending money is a powerful way to support an incarcerated loved one, make sure you set limits and manage expectations. Decide how much you can afford to send your loved one each month, and stick to it.
PAY PARTICULAR ATTENTION TO YOUR MENTAL HEALTH AND EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING.
The prosecution and incarceration of a loved one is a traumatic experience. Try to be kind to yourself and focus on self-care. Watch for changes in your appetite, sleep patterns and daily routine, as well as increased use of alcohol or other substances. These are all signs that, like many people in your situation, you need more emotional and psychological support. Try to find at least one or two supportive family members or friends with whom you feel comfortable sharing your feelings. In addition, even if you don’t notice any of these red flags during the early stages of your loved one’s incarceration, it is wise to explore counseling or therapy. Such services can be expensive if you do not have quality health insurance, but you may be able to find free or low-cost support groups in your community. You also can find support and other resources online https://strongprisonwivesandfamilies.com/
Meditation, controlled breathing techniques and physical exercise are also proven methods of dealing with the anxiety and depression that often accompany the incarceration of a loved one. Above all, try to be patient with yourself, as almost all family members go through an extensive period of grieving before they adapt to their “new normal.”
GIVE YOUR CHILDREN EXTRA ATTENTION AND SUPPORT.
The emotional trauma inflicted by incarceration is magnified in children. The emotions typically associated with parental prosecution and incarceration range from fear to hopelessness to abandonment to anger. A child whose parent has been sentenced to prison or jail is significantly more likely to be disciplined at school and/or run into trouble with law enforcement.
Children need as much extra attention, love and support as possible during this time. To begin with, remind your child that the situation is not their fault; explain to your child that their mother/father/loved one made a mistake and is not a bad person. Help your child determine the best way to answer questions about the incarceration. Be vigilant about bullying by peers at school, and prepare to advocate for your child if you feel they are being treated differently by classmates or teachers. If possible, arrange for your child to meet with a counselor or other mental health professional.
Many not-for-profit organizations offer services to children of incarcerated parents; some of those organizations are listed here: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/supporting/support-services/incarceration/.
A period of incarceration changes everything. You will change; your loved one will change; your relationship will change. For example, if the person incarcerated is your spouse or partner, you will need to accept new and greater responsibility in your household. You may have to make decisions you were not previously expected to make, while many decisions you made collaboratively will now be entirely your responsibility. If your spouse or partner earned a portion or all of your family’s income, you may need to make major life changes. That could mean moving to more affordable housing, or moving in with a friend or family member; seeking employment or a second job; applying for public assistance; and/or borrowing from friends and family.
Another common example of change involves religion. Inmates often turn to religion as a source of hope, community, acceptance from peers and, perhaps, redemption. If your family was not particularly religious in the past, you will have to adjust to your loved one’s decision, whether it turns out to be a temporary coping mechanism or a long-term change in lifestyle.
Being resilient in the face of change is not easy. The American Psychological Association has published an online brochure titled, The Road to Resilience, that offers helpful tips. You can find it here: https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.
DON’T TRY TO GO IT ALONE.
Abundant resources are available to help you and your family carry on while your loved one is incarcerated. Here is just a sampling:
• For local services, Google “[County] services for families of incarcerated persons.”
• Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street and other child-focused programming, has a wealth of information on helping children cope with a parent’s incarceration. Visit https://sesameworkshop.org/topics/incarceration/
• The Prison Fellowship website provides a state-by-state inventory of programs that help families of prisoners: https://www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/support-friends-family-of-prisoners/
• The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, at Rutgers University, has compiled a directory of programs serving children and families of offenders. The programs are listed alphabetically, here: https://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/resources/directory/national-programs/
• The National Reentry Resource Center, https://csgjusticecenter.org/nrrc, has information to help smooth the transition from incarceration to productive member of society, for both inmates and their loved ones. You can find links to services nationwide here: https://nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/search?search=reentry-services-directory
III. APPENDIX: BUDGET BASICS, WITH WORKSHEET
Creating and living within a budget involves three basic steps:
STEP 1: DETERMINE YOUR MONTHLY DISPOSABLE INCOME
Begin by determining your monthly disposable income after taxes and other deductions. For most people, that means checking your pay stub. If you have other sources of income (e.g., alimony, child support, social security, or pension benefits), include those as well.
STEP 2: TALLY YOUR MONTHLY SPENDING
One way to accomplish this is to keep a daily record of your expenditures for a month or two.
If that is too tedious or time-consuming, you can get a good idea of your spending by reviewing your bank and credit card statements for the past several months. This method won’t track your cash expenditures, however, so you will need to collect receipts for all cash purchases or do your best to estimate them from memory. In addition, make sure you include expenses that occur on a regular, but not monthly, basis, e.g., annual insurance payments or quarterly estimated taxes. Convert these amounts to a monthly expense (e.g. $1,200 a year for car insurance means you need to budget $100 a month). Assign each expenditure to a category, e.g.:
• Taxes (not taken out of pay).
STEP 3: REPEAT AND ADJUST MONTHLY
Once you know where your money is going, you will be able to determine the minimum you need to earn each month, and then make deliberate decisions about how to allocate that money. This is not a one-and-done task. You need to make a new budget at the start of every month—e.g., a January budget, a February budget. Making a budget each month helps you identify spending patterns and spot red flags (e.g., a steady increase in the amount or frequency of payments to your incarcerated loved one). In short, it helps to keep you “honest” and may even allow you to pay off debt and begin saving money.
A SIMPLE BUDGET WORKSHEET
Use this worksheet as a starting point for preparing your monthly budgets. If you have Excel or another spreadsheet program, you can use these categories to make a spreadsheet that will do the math for you. Alternatively, you can find a number of simple budgeting spreadsheets and templates online that are available for free download.