What to Do If You Have an Incarcerated Family Member

Updated: Apr 1

Part 1: During Incarceration

It is a helpless feeling. You sit in the courtroom and watch as a close family member is being sentenced by the judge.

You cannot do anything, but hope and pray that your beloved family member will receive as lenient a sentence as possible.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the judge’s sentence will involve your family member being incarcerated.

A 2019 study by researchers at Cornell University found that approximately 45% of Americans have a close relative who has spent time in jail or prison. This percentage increased to approximately 48% among Hispanic families and 63% among African-American families.

Having a close family member be incarcerated creates a significant disruption in your life.

While you are not the one being sent away, your life also can be materially adversely affected.

Someone who you love, someone who possibly supported you financially, someone who possibly supported you emotionally, is being taken away from you.

When faced with the situation of a beloved relative being sent to jail or prison, what should you do?

There are many issues that arise when you have an incarcerated family member, both during incarceration and after incarceration. This blog examines these issues that arise during incarceration; in the next blog, we will discuss these issues that arise after incarceration.

Consider the Impact of Incarceration As Soon As Possible

You actually should start to consider the implications of a family member being incarcerated well in advance of when the incarceration will begin. Particularly when the incarcerated person is a spouse or someone whose absence will affect your daily responsibilities, you need to plan concerning a host of issues, including:

  • Financial issues – If the incarcerated person was completely or even partially supporting you financially, how will you make-up for the loss of income while the incarcerated person is unable to earn income? If assets are in the name of the incarcerated person, how will you be able to manage or access those assets when the incarcerated person can no longer do so? Power of attorney or other “authorization” documents should be executed and put in effect before the incarcerated person becomes unavailable in prison.

  • Childcare issues – If the incarcerated person was handling certain childcare responsibilities, will you now have the available time (and how will it affect you financially) to assume these childcare responsibilities? If you are not the natural parent of the child (for example, a step-parent, a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle), what will be your childcare responsibilities with respect to the child after the natural parent becomes incarcerated? It should be clarified what are your childcare responsibilities relative to other family members with respect to any children of the incarcerated person.

  • Other custodial issues – If the incarcerated person is responsible for any dependent adult person (such as an aged parent or grandparent or someone with special needs), how will the issues described above concerning childcare responsibilities be resolved with respect to the dependent adult person?

  • “Knowledge” issues – If the incarcerated person has knowledge of certain necessary issues that can affect your life while the incarcerated person is unavailable, how will the incarcerated person transfer such knowledge to you when the incarcerated person is unavailable? These “knowledge” issues can range from such diverse topics as financial matters (who do I call to prepare our tax return?) to household matters (who do I call to clean the gutters?).

Planning is also important to cover issues with respect to the incarceration, as communication and certainly contact will often be limited, and possibly also strained, while the incarcerated person is unavailable.

Most importantly, the terms on which you will have communication and contact with the incarcerated person should be set in advance. How frequently will you visit the incarcerated person? How often will you communicate with the incarcerated person? Will you communicate by regular mail, e-mail, or telephone? Will you be mailing the incarcerated person photos, articles, books, or other materials? If the prison is “locked-down”, and you are unable to communicate with or contact the incarcerated person, how will you handle the situation?

Another important issue is will you be funding the incarcerated person while in jail and, if so, on what specific basis. The incarcerated person will need an outside source to pay for food, toiletries, and other items from the prison commissary and probably the use of the e-mail and telephone system.

Every family will resolve these various issues differently, but the key on all of these issues is that realistic expectations are set before the incarcerated person departs so that there is no subsequent feelings of disappointment.

While Your Family Member Is Incarcerated

Once the incarceration has begun, your primary focus should be to support your family member.

At minimum, incarceration is a lonely and depressing process.

The incarcerated person will often just stare into space and reflect on what their uncertain future will be.

Under these circumstances, it is crucial that the incarcerated person receives as much support and encouragement as possible.

Statements such as “Whatever you need, I’m here for you” and “We will overcome this situation together” can be so important to boost the spirit of an incarcerated person.

If there is good news from home (such as a job promotion or a recovery from a health issue), please share it with the incarcerated person.

Bad news should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Some incarcerated persons want to know everything that is going on at home, good or bad, while others would recoil at, and react adversely to, any bad news.

If the incarcerated person is able to reach out to you (such as sending you a birthday card or anniversary card), please respond to acknowledge the gesture. What may seem to be a small act by you may in fact have taken a major amount of effort by the incarcerated person.

Certainly, the incarcerated person should also be reaching out to you, but understand that even simple acts can be harder to complete from a jail.

Incarceration is a significant obstacle to the maintenance of any family relationship. Hopefully, by considering the issues described above, you will be in a better position to uphold and even enhance the quality of the relationship with your incarcerated loved one during their incarceration.

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