If a man had done his best, what else is there? -General George S. Patton
Come back to the place of safety, all you prisoners who still have hope. -Zechariah 9:12
Through the inky blackness of the night a small ship sails, tossed side-to-side, cresting and falling, wave and trough. Sailors fight to keep the ship together, lashing cargo, manning bilge pumps, sliding across worn decks slickened by the turbulent sea.
The water engulfs one sailor just as he releases his grip on the rail. His intention is to help; his action ill-advised. The wake of the ship pulls him under. He struggles against the forces of nature. The water parts above his head. He gulps to fill his oxygen starved lungs.
The ship sails away.
The sailor, whose love has always been the sea, now finds the embrace of his lover more than he can bear. He screams to the ship for help, but the fight to save the ship and the salt water he swallowed has hoarsened his throat. The sound, had anyone been around to hear it, is terrifying. He curses, cries, pleads, screams and curses some more.
The lights of the ship, when visible, continue to dim as it moves into the distance.
The storm abates, waves calm, the eastern sky lightens, the last visible speck of the ship blips into the horizon. The sailor treads water. He is exhausted from the fight but has established an ebbing equilibrium. It’s inevitable that he will, at some point, slip beneath the surface, nothing but a memory to those now abandoned. For now though, he copes with what he has been given.
Your husband (son, father, friend) went through a turbulent time before coming to prison. Some break down, some express bravado, some resign themselves to fate and still others spew vitriol toward the system, family or friends. But all are souls tossed from the ship of society. Only the reaction to his plight is different.
It may be hard to know how to interact with your inmate. Human nature will not make this task any easier. You will experience phases of emotion much like the Stages of Grief: Denial, Pain and Guilt, Anger, Depression, Working Through, and Acceptance. Understand, your inmate is feeling these same emotions. It is precisely this understanding that will carry you through.
Don’t give up. Contact with those who have meaning in his life is important beyond measure. We are exposed to others’ conversations while waiting at the phone bank I am often dismayed by what I hear: abusive language, unreasonable demands and ultimatums from the incarcerated to the free world. I can’t imagine how it is received on the other end.
If this is something you have experienced then allow me to explain: you are hearing the cries of the drowning man, the desperate, the powerless. These men used to earn a living. They controlled what they ate and when. Entertainment wasn’t limited to one movie on Saturday night selected by an unknown person. Your inmate used to have choices: freedom to work hard, earn money, pursue a dream. He also had freedom to slack off, abuse his choices and put his family through misery. Now all freedom is gone. The choices he is allowed to make are petty. Eat, don’t eat. Work, don’t work. Exercise, don’t exercise. As far as the B.O.P. is concerned his only requirement is to breathe in and out occasionally.
Here’s where you come in. It is up to you to keep your inmate engaged; actively involved in the outside world. Start with regular correspondence. It doesn’t have to be an epistle, a simple note or newspaper clipping sends the message that someone cares. You cannot imagine how it feels to hear your name at mail call. Not organized? I get a one page letter from my sister every month, nearly the same day of the month. Knowing my sister, she has set up an email reminder on her work computer. I don’t care how she remembers, just that it is important to me that she does. Celebrate special days with a card. Purchase them in advance, sign them and put a Post-It Note on each to remind you when to send it.
A hometown newspaper subscription keeps your inmate aware of the community goings-on. Prison is a time machine. The induced isolation gives the perception that the outside world is in a state of suspended animation. I suspect many felons return to prison as a result of the disorientation experienced to realize the world has moved on in their absence. Soldiers experience this as well when they return from a long deployment.
Don’t coddle. Hiding bad news is ill-advised. Your inmate is an adult, treat him like one. Inmates need to assimilate the same information you do in order to see future decisions from your point of view. Dog died, finances tight, unexpected pregnancy, these are a part of life. It may not be welcome news but it must be dealt with regardless. Small doses over the course of an incarceration are easier to digest than a heap to choke down upon release.
Involve your inmate in family decisions. Keeping him actively involved reassures his delicate sense of manhood. Consider his input regardless of what you ultimately decide. Then follow up, especially if it is not aligned with his desires. Even seemingly small decisions become a big deal when an inmate has nothing else to focus his attention. The take-away? Involve, don’t tell.
Prison is a tough love situation. The vast majority of us put ourselves in this situation through our self-centered behavior. Your job is to no longer tolerate self-centeredness. Your inmate may need financial support to get set up initially, for stamps and phone calls. Commissary purchases are nice, and make prison slightly more tolerable, but aren’t necessary to sustain life. Your inmate will not starve to death. Your tax dollars are not paying for steak dinners but most meals are edible. Be careful in your monetary support. The same temptations that exist in the free world exist behind bars. The weaknesses your inmate had out there are the same ones he will have in here.
I wish I could report that every inmate is penitent and uses his time behind bars to develop his strength of character. However, inmates are still human and still subject to making poor decisions. To move in a positive direction he needs a base of support: you. You are his connection to the outside world. You are his link to civilization. His successful re-entry depends in large part on how you handle his incarceration.
Now a word to my fellow inmates. You made your decisions while free, man-up and live with the consequences. Nobody on the outside owes you anything. Don’t like your situation? Resolve not to come back. The root of the word penitentiary is penitent which means “suffering pain or sorrow for sin with will to amend.” Amend means “to free from fault or error; to correct; to improve.” So if you are suffering in your current situation then count it all joy to have this opportunity to free your thinking and behavior from fault and error.
Write home regularly. So what if you don’t have anything to say. Clip meaningful cartoons from the paper or retell funny jokes. Your family wants to hear from you. Relate the things you are doing to better yourself. Sure there are a million negatives in prison but most of them you should keep to yourself. Look for the positive things to share.
Call those you love as often as your finances will allow. The few minutes you have are precious and expensive. Use your time wisely. Lift up those we abandoned. Listen to what they have to say. They are hip deep in bills, doctor visits, work and school. Hear what they have to say and understand they are making do without your help. The last thing they need from you is verbal abuse or instruction on what you think they need to do. Start and end conversations on an upbeat.
Don’t make demands. You are a ward of the government. Your family has no obligation to support you. Focus on living within your means. Honest, dependable, hard workers are respected everywhere; even in prison. Use this as an opportunity to develop your character and your needs will be met. Best of all, your family will respect you for it.