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The effects of incarceration on family members

By Holly Campion

The purpose of imprisonment is to punish an individual, to deter them from a life of crime, to provide them with rehabilitation and ultimately for them to pay a debt to society for their crimes. Unfortunately, it is not only the individual imprisoned who experiences these consequences; their families also serve a sentence and are punished for the crime committed.

Families of offenders can often be referred to as the ‘hidden victims’ of a crime. There is not a lot of support out there for family members of offenders. They receive little sympathy from the criminal justice system and the wider public. This blog post will touch on the different ways families are affected by incarceration, what the family can do for the offender and vice versa.

Financial - Something that is often not given a lot of consideration is the financial strain that is put on families while their family member is imprisoned. Of course, there is the obvious financial impact of legal fees which can be hugely stressful as they want the best defence and support for their loved one. It can often be the case that the main source of income for the family was coming from the individual that is now in prison, this can leave the family feeling isolated and overcome with financial worries. There is also the cost of providing money and personal items such as the correct clothing to the individual whilst they are in prison. Understandably, these requests can sometimes be very specific and quite costly.

Media - Particularly in the early stages of imprisonment, if the case has been in the public eye the family can receive a lot of unwanted attention. Unfortunately, sometimes there can be situations where the media can reveal the home address of an offender. This leads to a fear of being attacked instilled in the family members of the offender. Their safe space is now no longer safe and they live in fear of retaliation from those affected by the crime and by their neighbours. Neighbours can often be vindictive and unkind towards the family of an offender as they don’t want this criminality and attention brought to their neighbourhood. The previously referred to unwanted attention can be in the form of negative comments about someone very close to their heart, harassment for information or a suggestion of their own guilt in the crime. This can be very difficult particularly for parents of an offender.

Relationships - Following on from that last point, relationships are something that are hugely affected by incarceration. Research has shown that prisoners struggle to maintain relationships with their loved ones while in prison. Relationships are vital to the survival of prisoners; even though contact is limited, visitations can be the only form of meaningful human connection. Having meaningful and strong relationships are essential in the process of stopping criminal behaviour post release from prison. Parents can feel a sense of guilt often as to where they went wrong. Children go through key moments of their life with parental absence. Romantic relationships can particularly suffer as the partner can feel a sense of abandonment when the individual goes to prison.

Mental Health - Of course imprisonment has huge effects on the mental health of the individual imprisoned, but it also can have a detrimental effect on the family members. First, there can be a sense of grief and loss. For however long the prison sentence is, they have lost their loved one; they cannot hold them or feel their presence the way they were used to. This grief is unacknowledged because it is not a loss in the traditional sense of the word. Family members fear for the safety of the individual as prison can be a dangerous place and how it is portrayed in movies and on television does not help this notion. Alongside, this fear for the safety of the offender the family can often have concerns for themselves and their safety as they fear acts of retaliation from the public. This constant state of fear can be debilitating and have a severe effect on their mental health and can lead them to feel isolated. Family members go through their own trauma of not knowing what to do with the individual’s belongings whilst they are incarcerated and the trauma of visitation where they are subjected to an intense and intimidating environment. They are also subjected to invasive security searches when coming to visit.

What can the prisoner do for their family?

  • Do not underestimate what ordeal they had to go through every time they came to visit.

  • Consider that there may be some resentment for the trauma they went through.

  • There may have been a significant financial strain

  • Understand that they may have questions, curiosity about your time in prison.

  • Take into account that they may not know how to act around you post release, they may feel you are fragile and treat you as so.

What can the family do for the prisoner?

  • Give them time to readjust, the sudden freedom and personal autonomy can be overwhelming

  • Help them prepare for the job search

  • Look into what local support there may be for you and for them

  • Understand that the relationship may be different as you have both evolved during the time apart

  • Be there to listen but don’t push them to talk if they are not ready. It can take time to accept and acknowledge how the time in prison affected them.

  • Look into family counselling services to have a professional help you talk through this difficult transition

Resources in the UK that could be of use: