In Her Shoes: The Journey of a Prison Wife

We often hear about what life is like behind prison bars, but we rarely hear about what life is like for the family that is waiting on the outside. Having a family member go to prison does not only alter the life of the convict, but it also alters the life of his/her entire family.

According to the 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics reports say that approximately one-half of state prisoners (64 percent of mothers and 47 percent of fathers) lived with at least one of their children either in the month before or just prior to imprisonment. Seventeen percent of fathers lived in a single-parent household and 18 percent lived in a two-parent household.

Here is an insight on how life drastically changed for KLINK employee, Joanne Amos, after her husband was incarcerated.

Joanne: Allow me to start this post by explaining the difference between jail, prison and parole.   Jail is where an offender is waiting for a trial, they have not been found guilty or innocent, nor have they been sentenced to any time.  An offender can sit in jail for anywhere between days and years, depending how long their case takes to come to trial.  Prison is where the offender goes after a guilty plea or verdict and there is a sentence of a certain amount of time.  The offender can serve all of the time, but usually they serve part of it and are released on parole. And Parole is finishing the sentence living at varying degrees in the community (half way houses, independent living, or re-unification with family).

While lots of families are single parent families due to divorce, separation or death, families where one of the parents is incarcerated are an interesting situation.  The parent who is home with the children is playing the role of a single parent, even though they are not.  Their relationship with their partner is intact; however society, schools, friends and family see them, and treat them, as single.

The vast majority (84 percent) of parents incarcerated in state prisons reported to the Bureau of Justice Statistics that at least one of their children was in the care of the other parent. Fifteen percent identified as caregivers the grandparents, 6 percent other relatives and 3 percent reported that at least one child was in a foster home, agency or institution.12 Responses of mothers and fathers in state prison differed on this survey question. Eighty-eight percent of fathers identified the child’s other parent as the current caregiver, compared to 37 percent of mothers. Sixty-eight percent of mothers, on the other hand, identified a grandparent or other relative as a child’s current caregiver, compared to 17.5 percent of fathers. Finally, mothers were five times more likely than fathers to report that a child was in foster care (11 percent vs. 2 percent, respectively).

Incredibly personal and invasive questions seem to not apply as personal or invasive when one discloses that their partner is not in the home due to incarceration.  People will ask a child “Why is your Mom/Dad in jail?”  A question that is not appropriate under any circumstances.  It is a catch-22 situation sometimes, telling people why a parent is away can sometimes be less harmful than people assuming the worst and judging your family with those assumptions.  And in these days of Google, it’s quite easy to find out a parents name and go searching.  Unfortunately, the internet is not always accurate.  There is a big difference between what a person has been charged with and what they plea to, or get convicted of.  It’s not unusual for 10 charges to become 2 convictions.

My children were aware that their Dad was in jail and they had a basic understanding of why, but the information my 15 year old had was much different than the information my 7 year old had.  Just like any topic that a parent discusses with a child, age appropriateness and maturity level has a lot to do with the information you give the child.

Maintaining relationships between a child and an incarcerated parent can be difficult, expensive and time consuming.  When my spouse went to jail, there was a time where there was no contact (a few weeks) I was very hurt, angry and extremely unsure whether the relationship would survive.

A few weeks after he went to jail, my son received a letter from his Dad.  Immediately he wanted to write him back (please understand that my son has special needs and required a scribe for written communication).  This became a daily part of our routine, writing a letter or card to Dad (When Dad was released he had over 700 letters and cards and told me that getting that daily mail kept him going when he didn’t think he could).  Phone calls became part of our routine as well.  The only way an incarcerated person can call home is collect to a land line.  From local jail it works out to $1 for 20 minutes of talking, it’s much more expensive from prison because most prisons are long distance.  Hearing other Moms talk in the visiting room I know that some phone bills in the $1000 a month range.  It’s an impossible choice, a huge financial burden or no communication between a parent and a child.  I am not a person who drives (having lived all my adult life in a big city with a good public transportation system) however if I ever thought about getting a driver’s license, it would have been for travelling to and from the jail (and later the prison).  By TTC, it would take an hour to get there and an hour to get home for a 20 minute visit twice a week (in local jail an incarcerated person is allowed 2 personal visits per week).

A recent study by Susan Phillips and her colleagues found that parental incarceration is strongly related to economic strain in children’s households, defined as low-income with an unemployed caregiver and a lower standard of living or inability to meet the child’s needs. Related to economic strain is the possibility that parental incarceration will increase the risk that children’s households will become unstable, including multiple, frequent moves; the introduction of unrelated parental figures into the household; divorce; and non-routine school changes. Any of these can pose risks to children’s healthy development. The Phillips study found that any kind of parental involvement in the criminal justice system—including, but not limited to, incarceration—is related to family instability. On the other hand, the study found that such involvement was not significantly associated with a child’s living in a family with structural risks, i.e., with a single caregiver, a large family, or placement in foster care.

I would call the jail any day we were going to visit to make sure visits were happening, cancellations could happen at any time, for any reason.  One moment that will remain with me forever was taking our son to see his Daddy on his 7th birthday.  Visits were on and he was so excited to see his Dad on his birthday, even taking the day off school for this special visit.  I called ahead and all was a go; however by the time we got there visits were on hold and after waiting for 2 hours, they cancelled.  My son sat in the waiting room and sobbed so hard that a few of the guards who worked the waiting room (and knew us from our regular visits) came to tell him that his Daddy had told them all it was his birthday and to give him a hug.  I will always be grateful to those guards, who that day, showed a little boy a lot of humanity.

Check KLINK’s blog next week to read more about Joanne’s story.

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