I remember when I began my sentence I thought it was the end of the world. The end of life and the end of family and the life I knew with them. Today I am talking to those of you who recently lost loved ones to incarceration with long sentences. I want to talk to you about what you can expect.
I’ve listened and observed those around me for nearly 3 decades now. I’ve known hundreds of men and women pulling 30+ years or life sentences. Some of them I’ve known for decades while others I’ve known for a couple of years. Most importantly, I’ve talked to most of them about how they cope with their situation and about how they have fared from beginning to now. Those I haven’t talked to I’ve intently observed throughout time. There’s a common theme that emerges and I will discuss this in a moment.
I recently received an email from a reader whose son began a life sentence this month. She’s struggling to regain her footing and experiencing feelings of fear and loss. I know what she’s going through, and I am here today to tell you that while its hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, it is definitely there. The beginning of a long sentence doesn’t mark the end of life, but a type of beginning that will bring newfound growth for yourself and your loved one. It’s not the end, and I speak from experience. Everything is going to be okay.
In my discussions with my peers a common experience emerges and its one of hope, growth, and perseverance. I’m not going to tell you that you won’t struggle with feelings of loss for your loved one, because you will. Nor am I going to tell you that your loved one won’t himself struggle coping and adjusting, because he will. But I can tell you that when these moments of loss and struggle strike, they will be short lived. You and your loved one will emerge from each personal trial strengthened, wiser, and more prepared for the rest of the future ahead. The fears you have now for your loved one, the fear of an unknown future, the fear you have for your loved one’s wellbeing will all subside with time. Time will reveal to you that everything is going to be okay.
I think the greatest thing families struggle with is the fear of their loved one’s wellbeing while serving out his sentence. This is understandable because all most people have to go by is what Hollywood has portrayed in movies like Escape From Alcatraz and Shawshank Redemption. I’m here to tell you now that Hollywood is just that: Hollywood. Reality is less complex.
Do the things that happened in Shawshank happen in prison? Sure, every prison has some aspects of Shawshank (the violence, thefts, crooked guards etc), but today’s prisons are structured in ways where these aspects are limited. Shawshank Redemption was filmed at the old Ohio Penitentiary, a castle of crude iron and brick work from a bygone era of American history. Today’s modern facilities are hospitable and exist under a framework of state laws, regulations, and outside scrutiny that were absent in the days of Alcatraz and Shawshank. At no other time in American history have prisoners been treated with the care and attention to their wellbeing as they are today.
I think, however, the best way to help you to understand what your loved one is going through is to refer you to posts I’ve previously written that answer the questions I know are on your mind. What happens on the first day of incarceration? See the post “The First Day“. What’s it like to visit for the first time in prison? See the post “The First Visit“.
I’ve created an entire category dedicated to answering common first time questions and experiences your loved one will experience at some point during his incarceration. I tell it like it is. The category titled “1st Times” has a dozen posts covering numerous first-time moments prisoners experience. Read them. Most of them are drawn from my personal experience, but I can tell you with conviction that my experiences aren’t unique. Prisoners experience these moments in similar fashion.
If you are struggling to carry on with your day-to-day life due to worry for your loved one it’s okay The solution to this is for you to learn about this new world your loved one is in. The more you learn the easier you will be able to cope and to reset back into a sense of normalcy. Felicia and I write this blog specifically for you. We answer the question “What is it like to be incarcerated in the United States?” And we do this through these weekly postings. Read as much of our postings as you can, but whatever you do don’t rely upon Hollywood movies, primetime crime shows or other inmate blogs that exist simply to glorify the seamier side of incarceration. You won’t find any off that here.
It’s also good for you to join forums with members who also have loved ones that are incarcerated. There you will find community and shared understanding. You will be able to share your concerns, fears, hopes and worries with others who can in turn share with you their personal experience. The more you learn about incarceration the more you will feel at ease. Fear for your loved one is driven by fear of the unknown.
Your loved one is also on a factfinding mission too. He is talking to those he meets, asking questions and learning as he goes. And just like members in a forum for incarcerated loved ones, prisoners share with other prisoners. We’re all here together, and we prisoners understand this. Contrary to what may be popular belief, prisoners do help each other. We ‘old school’ prisoners, as my peers would say, often look out for the new guy, and we do this by educating him to the do’s and don’t of prison life, to the proper way to do your time, what to adhere to and what to avoid, and ways to make your time as productive and as positive as possible. It then is up to your loved one to take the advice he is given.
You play an important role in your loved one’s incarceration by being there for him. I’ve written on this several times before. Here are the names of a couple of previous posts that will help you to help him. Find each post by typing the name of the post into the search bar on this web page:
“Why Your Letters Matter”
“Visiting Your Children While Incarcerated”
and these posts, which are all part of the category “7 Days Behind Bars” capture a week of writings that I wrote while my unit was on covid quarantine when my facility was dealing with major covid outbreaks. They will give you a window into what life is like here from day to day. Everything isn’t always a serious affair, and you may be surprised:
“Monday: Training Murphy and a Perv Strikes
“Tuesday: Mouse Racing and Social Distancing”
“Wednesday: La Isla Bonita”
“Thursday: Religion Is the Smile On A Dog”
“Friday: Moonwalking With Einstein”
“Saturday: If I Could Save Time In A Bottle”
“Sunday: ‘Christopher, I Know I’ll Die In Prison'”
I also wrote a 3 part series titled “Are You Being Served?” that is all about companies and resources available to help prisoners cope and make the best of their incarceration. Read it. You may find information that could be useful to helping your loved one now or in the future. Plus, you will learn about the universe of companies and organizations that exist to help prisoners during incarceration. You can find the whole series by typing “Are You Being Served” into the search bar or you can search and read each individually:
“Are You Being Served?”
“Are You Being Served? (Pt.2)”
“Are You Being Served? (Pt.3) Pen Pal Ministries”
You can learn about prison life in the category titled “In This World” or by starting with the following posts:
“First Time Grapevine”
“Peck, Peck, Pecking Order!”
“The First Major Lock Down”
And finally, read the words and experiences of other prisoners in the categories “Guest Writings” and “The Lives of Women Behind Bars”. If you type the category name into the search bar it will pull up every post in the category or you can scroll down and click on the category links.
Today is the first day of your and your loved one’s rest of your lives, and I am here to tell you, everything is going to be okay. I know this with certainty from experience. Everything will be fine.