How can you best relate to friends with imprisoned loved ones?

Prisoner of yor DNA
By: tim_ellisCC BY 2.0
My friends long-term partner was charged and imprisoned this year. He is also my friend. A few years back I was close to them both, but time gets away from us all and I hadn't spent much time with them over the last year or so.

When I found out what had happened I knew my friend would be devastated. Her partner will be in jail for years, not weeks. I have messaged her a few times indicating I would love to see her, and we are planning a catch up in the next few weeks.

My conundrum is this: Do we talk about her partner? Do I pass on my best wishes? Do I just ask if she is okay? What is the best way to show my support to her, and by proxy, her imprisoned partner.

Thanks Homies, you're the best! -Anonymous

Wow, I think this is the first time we're discussing the topic of jails and prisons on Offbeat Home & Life. So let's hear it from our Homies with imprisoned loved ones… How did your friends deal with it? What are the things you wish people would stop saying or doing? How are YOU dealing with it yourself?

What are the ways in which you best received, or wish you had received support?

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  1. I think I would approach this much in the same way as I would when someone's partner is seriously ill. As how their partner is coping with these changes but more importantly ask how she is doing and if there is anything you can do for her. Most likely people are trying to talk around what has happened and it would probably feel better if someone just acknowledged recent events.

    12 agree
  2. It depends on a lot of factors. I was barely 18 when a parent was arrested. I did not want to talk about it with anyone. I think you should start with a "How are you doing? Do you need anything?" and let them guide the conversation. If they need to talk about it, they will. They will appreciate people caring about them enough to ask.

    16 agree
  3. When my step-dad was imprisoned we got lots of well wishes. It was nice to pass them along to him. However it can get a bit much, so like the poster above, I suggest letting your friend lead the conversation.
    One addition is to remember is in months your friends will be really feeling it and it was then that my mum really needed the support a few really good friends and family gave. It's easy to forget about when it's not you which is OK but whilst we didn't want a fuss made we appreciated people continuing to think of us and him.

    2 agree
  4. My suggestion is to start very openly and get the elephant in the room out of the way. When my mom was in prison, I wanted to let people know early on so I wasn't keeping a big secret or feeling duplicitous. While your friend may not feel the same, I think it's always best to start early on saying something like,"I saw that you and your partner are going through a hard time right now. Please know that I'm willing to lend an ear if you'd like to talk, but if you'd rather not, we can absolutely catch up on all of the good things in our lives." It's a touchy situation, but it can definitely be handled well if you're open and honest with your friend.

    19 agree
  5. Agree with what everyone else has said here – great advice. Depending on how your friend feels, what she says about the situation, how the convo goes, and what time reveals for all of you, I would add that she may want her partner to feel your support too. If she is (like I would be) devastated imaging how her partner will handle being locked up, isolated from the outside world, and the pain he or she experiences in the horrific world of prison, eventually she may welcome your potential interest in getting on her partner's approved mailing list, especially since you were previously a friend of that person too. Maybe your engagement/communication with the convicted partner would be welcome (but maybe not! Tread lightly). Personally, when I think about people I've known who've been locked up, I wish I could send them books, photos, letters, anything to remind them what's good about the world. Sometimes that's not appropriate though. Just a thought.

    1 agrees
  6. My parents have been in prison for 5 years now, and I agree with all of the above. Help dealing with his things would probably be very appreciated, too. Especially if they were living together, she probably has a closet with his clothes in it, dresser, nightstand, etc…and it's likely she doesn't want to, you know, look at all of those things every day. The help I had packing up my parents's house and tying up other lose ends (cell phone accounts, mailing lists) was invaluable to me. In many ways, the steps to take are very similar to what happens when someone passes away.

    Holidays: can you offer a place to go? I'm sure your friend has other family and things, but the first holiday season after my parents were incarcerated, I had no desire to really do anything familiar. My mother in law ended up bringing a very pared down version of Thanksgiving to us that year, and we were invited to spend Christmas with my best friend's family, which we hadn't done before and was perfect for that very reason–there were no memories of my parents attached to it.

    Ask about the partner, if you have it in you, please consider writing to the partner in prison. Prison is isolating and lonely, and it's not fair for your friend to be the only connection to the outside.

    Keep asking and being supportive as time goes on. Lots of support will drop off as the years go on, but your friend will still need help dealing with the suckiness. Just having someone to talk to is super helpful. Be there are her partner approaches release, too. My mom goes to the parole board next week, and my dad in March, and there is a whole flood a new emotions/problems/considerations that go along with this.

    I want to thank you for being there for your friend. She is going through a lot right now, and knowing there are people in your corner always makes that easier.

    16 agree
  7. My mother is currently incarcerated as a result of what I believe to be a less than stellar defense and an over zealous prosecution. We were directly impacted by both the incident and obviously from the fall out. Personally, I appreciate it when people continue to carry on as though this is "normal" family drama. The scenario is kind of complicated; but, everyone has their own stuff to deal with. I still want my friends and family to talk to me about their "stuff;" but, I also need to have someone to talk to about what is going on here.

    If you're close friends, you should definitely ask how she is. It's no different than anything else that someone has to deal with — she still has to deal with this. You should ask how both of them are, how it's impacted her day, and if you're able to help – help. If it seems okay – write her partner. Stay in touch with her. It's so important to have friends who support you, especially when the one you lean on is the one who is in prison. It's emotionally and financially draining to both the individual who has been incarcerated and to the family who supports them. If you're able to write a letter, or send a book or post card every now and then – everyone involved appreciates it.

    3 agree
  8. I'm happy to see this topic addressed here. I was a little perturbed when I searched Offbeat Bride for weddings in prison and found … nothing relevant but several historic prisons as a venues. Totally fair if the topic has never come up but slightly disturbing to see (historic) incarceration as a tourist draw.

    My fiance is incarcerated and the support that is most important to me is when people allow me to acknowledge – without shame or apology- his very real presence in my life.

    Some other, more specific, ideas-
    >If you are willing, offer to write to the incarcerated partner. Sending pictures and/or books to the incarcerated person would almost certainly be welcome too.

    >If you are in a position to and willing to help financially, offering money for phone or other expenses would be very kind – having a partner in prison and trying to stay connected and keep them as comfortable as possible is expensive!

    > Visit the partner if you are comfortable doing so. If you would visit them if they were in the hospital instead, this is probably appropriate and would be appreciated by the both your friend and the partner. Feeling that you are the sole/primary emotional support of an incarcerated loved one is stressful.

    >Ask how she's doing on holidays and other special occasions. Possibly offer to spend them with her if she doesn't have plans.

    > If there are children involved, offer to watch them so she can visit her partner alone sometimes.

    > This may be particular to me but driving home from visits is super lonely and I always appreciate when I can talk on the phone with a friend to make that drive less lonely.

    Most importantly, speak and act as if her partner is still fully human and do not stigmatize or criticize your friend for being with her partner.

    9 agree
    • Totally fair if the topic has never come up but slightly disturbing to see (historic) incarceration as a tourist draw.

      First: it's true that Offbeat Bride has never gotten a guestpost submitted on the issue. Would you like to submit one? I'm serious! I'd love to address the topic.

      Second, you're right that it's slightly disturbing… one of several slightly disturbing venues. We had a discussion on Offbeat Bride about that exact issue: http://offbeatbride.com/plantation-wedding The comments there are super interesting.

      8 agree
      • I will definitely consider submitting my wedding once it happens! I was pretty stoked to see you reply to my comment and even more so to see this reposted on the Offbeat Bribe Facebook page asking if anyone had tips for planning a wedding around an incarceration. I'm impressed and grateful that you guys are so responsive. 😀

        4 agree
        • Aww, you're welcome. Chances are if one reader takes the energy to speak out and ask for something, there are 100 more who want that same thing, and just haven't taken the time to ask.

          4 agree
  9. My best friend is in prison, currently serving year seven of fifteen for stabbing her rapist/uncle to death. Most people who know me know the story and they know how much I love and miss her. My other friends and and family seem to tip toe around the subject. They certainly have never started a conversation about her. I cannot say that it bothers me, since they let me lead the conversations and they do not ask a bunch of questions about her experiences in prison. She and I talk about them, but to have someone ask makes her seem like a curiosity not a human. Occasionally, I get really ticked off about something concerning her and go on a rant. My children and fiance are the ones who listen to those (as are the idiots on message boards without empathy.) They get worked up with me when that happens. (Curses, I feel a rant coming on right now about the fact that she gets one pack of poor quality pads a month and is forced to illegally buy them off of older women, or ask the–usually male–COs, who do not always give her some.)

    I still try to include her in my life. For example, when I get married, we are going to try to have a video visit the same day, so that she can be there for 20 minutes of the wedding. (I also made a rose out of one of her letters to add to my bouquet.)

    I guess the best advice is to let the person with the loved one lead the conversation, do not ask pointed questions about prison (especially stereotype fueled ones), ask about the person when appropriate, and do not make judgement statements, even if you have them. I am a non-violent person, yet when I hear someone say "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" or a prison rape comment, I want to do some violent things.

    9 agree
    • Yes to avoiding the prison stereotype comments! Asking if someonr if a third party has been raped, especially in a joking way, is NOT ok.

      8 agree
  10. You guys are making me cry a little. I'm really glad to see all of this said here. Glad this topic came up and such good advice is being given. You're all wonderful. Stay strong.

    2 agree
  11. My best friend's son is currently in prison and will be for several more years. In the past few months she has also been asked to testify against someone else involved in the crime and found out that the prison is being federally investigated for prisoner abuses. It's been very difficult for her.
    I'm doing my best to support her in every way I can. Right now, it looks like this:
    1) I always ask how both of her sons are doing. I (personally) think it's super important to acknowledge that even though one son lives with her and the other doesn't, they are both members of her family and are equally important to her.
    2) If her son calls while we are hanging out, he always comes first. It sounds simple, but it can be tough to find time to talk with a loved one in prison, so it's important to do it whenever possible. My conversations with her can be rescheduled, his can't. I make sure she knows that she can step away for as long as she needs and I will be cool with it.
    3) Specific help is always awesome. In my case, my friend and I worked together until recently. Whenever she had a court date for her son or anything else involving his case that required time off I stepped up to cover for her. Not worrying about every day stuff on top of everything else can go a really long way.
    4) Listen, don't talk. They probably have a lawyer for all of the legal advice. If they ask for your thoughts you can certainly give them, but they probably don't need more people making suggestions. Sometimes, they just need to vent and to have someone say "Damn, that really sucks."
    5) Finally, let them lead. If they want to talk about it, they will. If they don't, they won't.

    And Just keep loving them like you always have. Now is probably the time they need it most!

    6 agree
  12. My brother is in jail for downloading child pornography, and when news of that hit the small town I grew up in, it was terrible. While I no longer live there (my parents, unfortunately, did), new hit Facebook in a BIG way. Several people posted the article about it with his picture on their pages, either to poke fun at him or to call him a monster (yes, what he did was terrible, but HE wasn't the one having to read that–it was my other brother and I). I deleted anyone who posted it that I hadn't been close with, and tried to reason with a few people I didn't otherwise want to delete. It used up emotional energy I didn't really have to spare, so I REALLY appreciated when mutual friends stepped in and told them it was a shitty thing to do (I only know of those whose comments I could see–doing it in a message would have been equally helpful, especially if they didn't want to publicly embarass the person posting, but at that point, I didn't care if that person who posted got called out in an embarassing way). Recently, a classmate's brother got arrested for something similar, and I tried to remember my experience and shut down gossipy conversations about it. I imagine that's something that happens for years–not that the person in jail can't be talked about, but "how are they doing?" is much more productive than "did you hear?"
    I also appreciated messages of support (moreso messages than comments, since not many people in the city I live now knew or needed to know), but especially hearing from friends, however distant, that also had loved ones in jail. Having someone there can feel isolating–at first, I didn't think I knew anyone who had a family member in jail. However, a small, but sizeable, number of friends came out of the woodwork to tell me they knew how it felt. Now, I'm not suggesting all of our experiences were exactly the same, but it was still so great to not feel completely alone. So, if you love someone in jail and see a friend going through the same thing, it might be nice to mention you've been in their position, too.
    None of this necessarily helps the OP, but most of you will, unfortunately, know someone who knows someone in jail sooner or later (or it might be your loved one, or you, but let's hope not).

    4 agree
  13. It is great that you want to support your friend and I'm happy to see so many great responses. The prison system is not a great set up, as has been shared. It is hard and often unfair to the prisoner, but as pointed out is also financially and emotionally draining on the family. The stigma of incarceration doesn't help and people often feel the need to hide what is happening so as not to face judgment. One part I didn't see anyone touch on is a type of "survivor's guilt" that happened to me when my partner went to jail. He was in a bad facility and treated poorly. He shared this with me, and I felt so bad for him that I couldn't enjoy things in my own life thinking of what he was going through. Simple things like enjoying a meal out were difficult. I felt like I couldn't be happy because he couldn't be happy. It was a very dark time. I'm glad your friend will have someone there for her.

    4 agree
    • I handle survivor's guilt by asking myself things like, "Will abstaining from this meal out put restaurant food on his plate?" "Do I do him any favors by abstaining?" On the flip side, though I have not been incarcerated, I have known people reluctant to discuss pleasures of theirs that my disabilities block me from sharing. Yet I want to hear of their happiness! On hard days I can remember, and enjoy it with them in my imagination.

      2 agree
  14. My dad is unjustly inprisoned basically because of a vendetta the state has against him for no just reason (he's hasn't been sentenced yet, so there's still hope). And I personally couldn't have a wedding ceremony without him. But I (and he for that matter) appreciate it when people do talk about it. It's healthy to get frustration of your chest. Although I guess this might be very different if the incarcerated person/loved ones of… don't have a feeling of the incarceration being unjust.

    1 agrees
  15. My partner was recently released after serving a 14 month sentence. During this time, I created a facebook page to keep his family and friends connected, educate and update them about his situation, and provide specific things they could do to help (write letters, send books from a specific prison-approved amazon wish list, contribute to a gofundme account to help lawyer costs, etc). What started as a small page became a much larger movement that's continued past my partner's release. We are now passionately working to change the laws and treatment of inmates. That is what helped me find power in a very powerless situation, and I hope your friend is able to find and claim her power as well.

    P.S. In the very beginning, when I was afraid and suddenly alone, the most thoughtful responses were things like care packages of tea and soaps or someone dropping in with dinner. A few days of having others take care of the basics – eat, bathe, sleep, etc. – allowed me to move through the mourning process safely. I wouldn't have been as strong for the next year if they hadn't allowed me to be weak for those first few days.

    2 agree
  16. Having a brother in prison sucks a lot, but the ones hit most by it are my folks. My dad is especially close with my brother, and just being able to listen as they vent about the lawyers and what's going on in the prison with my brother (who has the misfortune of having a diagnosed mental disorder to boot). It's… a lot to deal with. My friends have given their regards and have let me vent at them in turn.

    It takes a lot of strength to deal with the stress of the whole situation, but in the end, I know my brother needs the support more then I do. Letters, frequent phone calls, and gift packages are our ways of helping him cope, as well as the occasional book order from Amazon.

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