Top Ten Ways Families Can Support
Their Incarcerated Loved Ones
Prison Gets Lonely
My father worked construction. As a kid, my summers were spent hanging out at construction sites. I met real tough guys from the plumbing, electrical, framing, concrete, landscaping, roofing, and every construction-related trade you can think of. One of the coolest guys to watch work was a plumber named after his father: Bobby Junior.
He was a former (or current) biker-gang member with the largest forearms I’d ever seen. He had long red hair and a beard reminiscent of the beastly and brutal Vikings I had only seen in comic books. I followed Bobby everywhere and watched him use his brute strength to effortlessly toss 300 lb. cast iron radiators twenty yards across the room. It would only take him a few swings of a sledgehammer to destroy a cast iron tub and the adjacent toilet. He handled a blowtorch like a wood whittling knife to soldier copper pipes into pretzels.
Bobby was also a madman. Everyone on every job site feared him. His temper was explosive. No one messed with Bobby. As a kid, I was never afraid of Bobby. I was in too much awe of him to fear him. He had a nickname for me which I forgot. I think that by giving me a nickname he was granting me permission to hang around him. It was his way of showing me that I was cool to him to.
Bobby disappeared one day.
Then one day, Bobby’s father came to tell us that he was sentenced to ten years in State prison for attempted murder. He would be paroled in eight and half years. Life at the construction sites weren’t the same without Bobby. The plumber that replaced Bobby was the furthest thing from a Viking. He more accurately resembled a dumpling. He was short, fat, fearful and clumsy.
Years passed and as I was graduating college, Bobby being paroled from the New Jersey State prison system. He returned to work, still looking like a Viking, but rarely spoke. I wondered if something terrible had happened to him while inside prison but didn’t ask. He was quiet before he went to prison, but now he was utterly silent. He still threw 300 lb cast iron radiators across the room like children’s toys and destroyed many a bathroom with his Thor-like sledgehammer, but the dude kept completely to himself.
After six months passed, I was helping Bobby haul his tools to his truck when he asked me, “Ya’ know what the worst thing about prison was?” I paused and kept quiet. A million thoughts raced through my mind of what he could have gone through, but I didn’t share a single one. I kept quiet.
“The worst part is that you don’t go alone. You take your family with you. Everyone you love is in that prison with you. My mother suffered more than I did. Her thoughts and imagination and worry about what was being done to her baby boy tormented her every night. She came to see me once and I noticed that she lost fifty pounds. It wasn’t just me suffering when I went to prison. Everyone who ever loved and cared about me went to prison with me. My father had two heart-attacks while I was inside. He got those heart-attacks worrying about me.”
Today, as a defense attorney, I have been able to confirm what Bobby told me twenty years earlier. Inmates suffer, but so do their loved ones. I’ve had clients sentenced to decades in prison and their families are utterly destroyed. Some family members turn to substance abuse while others give up on life in different ways. They stop going to work. They stop going to school. Their world just stops.
For some families the depression never leaves them. Others fight back and learn to cope with the reality of the situation. The families that slowly start living again are the families that get involved with their loved-one’s incarceration. They become involved with weekly phone calls, monthly visits, writing correspondence, sending gifts, sending pictures etc.
Here are Ten Ways To Become Involved In Your Loved-One’s Incarceration
Number One: COMMUNICATE – Call, Write, and Visit.
The worst feeling for most inmates is the feeling of being cut off from the world. Depending on each jail or prison, you can email certain inmates. Model prisoners are often offered special privileges such as access to the internet and email. If this is an option for your loved one, take a few minutes out of every day to drop a line and let them know they’re not missing much. In the alternative, if there is big news, be the first to notify them. Is baby sister getting married? Share that news!
Write an old school letter. The more doodling and drawings the better. These little pictures entertain and bring fleeting moments of joy to inmates. You don’t have to write a Shakespeare-length letter; just a few lines will bring a smile to their face. Share some gossip, some news, something funny, draw a funny comic strip and drop it in the mail. Just receiving a package in jail/prison is an event.
Travel to the jail/prison, regardless of how far away it is and visit your loved one. Of course, if you are in New Jersey and they are in Alaska, you may be able to visit only once a year. But if you are a few hours away, try to go at least once a month.
You can’t call them, but you can put money on their account for them to call you. More on this later.
Number Two: Send Pictures
Does your loved one have children? Send pictures of every baseball and football game. Pictures help inmates feel that they’re participating in their children’s childhood. If their daughter took up ballet, send a picture. If their child took an elementary-style class picture, let them have a copy.
Number Three: Send Birthday and Holiday Cards
Again, any excuse to give a shout out is all you need. Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas…whatever it is, send an inclusive card.
Number Four: Send Reading Material
Depending on the conditions set by each jail/prison, send any and all reading material that your loved one would enjoy. Were they into building stuff when they were younger? Try sending “Popular Mechanics. Did they love going to the zoo or museums in grade school? Send “National Geographic”. Have they become more spiritual since being incarcerated? Send the Bible, Dhammapada, Tao, etc..
Number Five: Send Money
Money can be deposited online or at the jail/prison kiosk. Inmates can use money to buy phone minutes. They can only call you if they have money on their account. Inmates can also use money to buy food from the commissary. Each jail/prison has a commissary (convenience store) where they can buy candy, snacks, hygiene items and other personal treats. Remember, you’re just trying to be involved during their incarceration. You may not always have the funds to deposit for your loved one and you should set their expectations as to what you can afford.
Number Six: Send Paper Games
Inmates complain the most about the boredom they experience. They are tormented by having so much time on their hands. If you can send Paper Games like crossword puzzles, Sudoku or whatever you can come find, they will greatly appreciate it.
Number Seven: Send Paper
Most jails/prisons provide paper but in limited quantities. Maybe your loved one wants to write to you or draw or keep a journal or whatever. The point is that if they have a lot of options, they are more likely to find something to do to overcome their boredom.
Number Eight: Send a Funny Newspaper Article or Clipping
Nothing can lighten up a person’s day than reading about something absurd in the newspaper. When possible, send a funny or humorous article. They’ll get a laugh and probably share with other inmates. Funny stories have a healing effect.
Number Nine: Send Scented Paper
If your husband or boyfriend is incarcerated, you may want to spray his favorite perfume of yours on a piece of paper. Our sense are very powerful and certain scents bring back happy memories instantly. Again, it’s just a small gesture that shows him how much you love him.
Number Ten: Send Lyrics of Favorite Songs
Entertainment is limited in jail/prison. You can get any lyric to any song online. Download the lyrics to some of your loved-one’s favorite songs and send them. Once they read the words, the rhythm and music will instantly kick in.
All of these suggestions are intended to help families cope with the loss of their loved ones.
Keep hope alive and take it one day at a time.