So You Have a Loved One in Prison:

As of 2009, the United States had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Roughly 743 people of every 100,000 are incarcerated. With over two million people in prison in 2011, there are a lot of friends and family members on the outside with concerns about their loved one in jail.

Many families with a loved one in prison experience economic hardship, especially if the incarcerated person was a primary wage-earner of the household.

Read more about economic hardship.

Spouses lose a co-parent to jail, and find themselves raising children alone.

It goes without saying that the impact of having a parent incarcerated on the children is enormous. Children of inmates in jail are at a greater risk of being incarcerated in the future.

Read more about single parenting.

As if this weren't enough, families with an incarcerated loved one experience social stigmas in their community because their loved one is in jail.

The first thing to remember when your loved one goes to jail is this: their incarceration is not your fault. No matter what you tell yourself, there is nothing that you could have done to help your loved one avoid this situation. Going to jail is a result of your loved one’s actions alone.

How To Cope With A Loved One In Jail:

Depending on your situation and the type of relationship with the individual who is now incarcerated, it’s important that you develop some coping strategies to help you deal with the incarceration in a productive way.

Above all else, make certain that your coping strategies help you, and your loved one without compromising your own well-being.

  • Remember that your loved one is responsible for their choices in life, choices that led them to jail, not you.
  • Make decisions early on as to how much emotional support you can provide your loved one in jail. How often are you willing to visit? How many times per week or month do you plan on talking via telephone? How often do you plan on writing letters? Set these benchmarks ahead of time and stick to your guns. Don’t commit more than you are capable of providing.
  • Decide how much financial support you’re willing to provide, and how often. Be mindful of your budget and what you can afford. Don’t feel bad if you can't spare anything.
  • Find a friend, family member, or support group to help you through this difficult time. Remember that you, not just the incarcerated individual, are affected by this and need care and support as well.
  • Continue to live your life and work on your own personal plans and goals. You should be your number one priority!
  • Understand that your family’s normal routine (on a day-to day-level and also during special occasions or holidays) can continue as normal. Try to find ways to involve your jailed loved one if possible.
  • If you see or hear something on the news about prison life that upsets you, remember that your loved one will be safe if they make good decisions and lifestyle choices while incarcerated.
  • Remind yourself that you have no control over the decisions that they make. Avoid watching television shows or movies that may trigger anxiety and make you feel upset.
  • Anticipate stressful times and prepare for them. These stressful times usually include the following: when your loved one is arrested, transferred, reviewed for parole, and released.
  • Communicate as openly as possible with your loved one and set expectations both for them and yourself. Understand that things don't always turn out as planned, but that your family can and will adapt.
  • Your incarcerated loved one may act out in various ways during contact with you, by acting manipulative or controlling. Remind yourself that your loved one may simply be afraid of losing you and is feeling disconnected from their former life. 45% of all inmates lose contact with their family members while in prison, and this may be something that they're afraid of. Keep this in mind and reassure them, but don't compromise your own self-respect.

What Happens During Visitation In Jail?

Make sure to be well-rested and to eat prior to your visit. There may or may not be vending machines in the visiting room, and it’s best to be in good physical shape so that you can handle any emotional curve-balls the visit might throw at you.

You will be searched prior to entering the facility.

A jail search usually involves a pat-down - the pat-down may include passing through a metal detector as well as the removal of your shoes and socks. 

Prisoners are usually not allowed to receive personal items from visitors, so it's best to refrain from bringing gifts unless you have cleared them with security beforehand.

If you want to take pictures, it may be best to clear this with security beforehand. Some facilities have Polaroids available for a nominal price.

Always follow the posted visiting rules and, if you encounter a problem, it's okay to request to speak with the officer in charge (usually the warden or assistance warden, or possibly a ranking staff member). Remember that being calm, respectful, and rational is the best way to achieve results, but that not all problems or situations can be resolved immediately. If necessary, it's appropriate to write a follow-up letter to the individual you spoke with.

Remember: if the situation becomes overly emotional or out of control, it's best to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. This will give you a chance to sort out your feelings and responses. You can write a letter to your loved one to communicate your perspective on what happened. There will be another opportunity to visit once things have cooled down.

Bringing Children to Visitation In Jail:

Make sure to visit by yourself prior to bringing a child with you - this will help you to be ready and will also help you to prepare the child for the experience.

Let the child know when the visitation will take place, so they are aware of the date and time. This will help them to set a mental expectation for the visit. An older child will probably need more time to prepare for the visit, but you should tell younger child just a few days before; if you tell them too far in advance, it may be difficult for them to wait.

It's very important that you follow through on this commitment with them and avoid frequent rescheduling. A child whose parent is in prison may have a lot of inconsistencies and variables in their life, so it's vital that they be able to rely on you.

Set an expectation for how long the visit will take. As you drive to the prison, explain to the child about the process (i.e., going through security, what the visitation room is like, etc) so they know what to expect.

If it's been a long time since the child and parent have seen one another, recommend that the parent write their child a letter telling them how much they miss them and that they are excited to see them. This will help the child understand that their presence is wanted even when the environment feels strange.

Ask the parent to describe themselves to the child if they have had any changes in appearance that might startle the child, including a description of regulation prison clothing.

The key to a successful visitation with a child is preparation: make sure both the child and the parent have good communication beforehand, and that the child is as mentally ready as possible for the experience.

Making sure that the child is well-rested and fed beforehand will help to stave off any behavior issues that might occur due to exhaustion or hunger during the visit.

Dealing with the Social Stigma of a Loved One in Prison:

Many family members of inmates feel that they are also being punished for the crime committed by their loved one.

It's common for them to feel guilty for the actions of their loved ones. They may be excluded from certain financial services like insurance or bank loans due to their loved one's criminal past. Depending on the nature of the crime and the publicity surrounding it, members of the community may lash out at the family in the place of the offender. Children may be bullied for being "different."

Family members often find themselves intentionally isolating themselves from friends and neighbors who simply don't understand what it's like, in order to protect themselves.

45% of inmates lose contact with their loved ones while they are incarcerated. Many families find themselves avoiding the subject of their loved one, pretending that individual doesn't exist, because the subject is too painful or frustrating.

Remind yourself that you love your family member, even when you're frustrated and don't feel as though you love them at all.

While there are no concrete solutions for the social stigmas associated with this situation, it's very important that you find a support group or people who you can speak with. Being able to talk about what's happening to you and your family can be a vital source of relief and comfort in this difficult time.

What Happens When My Loved One is Released from Prison?

As with visitation, preparing yourself and your loved one is vital to making this transition. By this point, you and your family on the outside have grown accustomed to life without your loved one.

You've established a routine, and the presence of your loved one will invariably disrupt that. The same goes for your loved one; they have grown accustomed to being institutionalized, and the transition will be difficult for them as well.

Do not expect that things will be the same as they were before your loved one went to prison - this experience has changed you both forever.

Understand that your family will need to establish a "new" normal and that communication is key. Prepare your children and other family members as best as you can, explaining that things will be different and difficult for a while, but that eventually it will get better as you grow used to one another again.

If possible, seek family therapy. If this isn't possible, stay in regular contact with your support groups while you and your family go through this transition.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Successful Reintegration after Incarceration Resources



Social Isolation

Single Parenting

Economic Struggles

Childhood Bullying

Additional Resources for Loving Someone In Prison:

Families Anonymous - A 12-step program for families of individuals with behavioral or criminal problems, or destructive behaviors, along with information on how to find a meeting near you.

Assisting Families of Inmates - FAQ with a wealth of information, including details about contacting inmates and sending money, as well as an explanation of the parole process.

Children of Inmates - A site dedicated to helping and supporting children of incarcerated parents, with news, statistics, resources, and volunteer opportunities.

Family & Corrections Network - Links to prison family programs all across North America, information on grants, funding, and legal assistance.

Communicating Behind Bars - A course and worksheet on understanding and maintaining good family communication during the incarceration.