On the Need for a Toolkit for Families of the Incarcerated

By | October 9, 2018

Washington Appleseed recently unveiled their comprehensive Washington Reentry Guide for formerly incarcerated people. Now they are collaborating with members of Prison Voice Washington and the Statewide Family Council to build a similar toolkit for families surviving incarceration in Washington State. On September 25, 2018, I gave a speech at the Good Apple Luncheon on the needs of families of the incarcerated. The text of this speech is reproduced below.

Loretta Rafay, Angeline Thomas, Katherine Katcher, and Tarra Simmons at the Washington Appleseed Good Apple Luncheon. September 25, 2015

 

I’m Loretta Rafay, co-chair of the Statewide Family Council and policy researcher for Prison Voice Washington. My husband has been incarcerated for over twenty years, and I joined him on that journey three years ago. Also here with me today is my fellow Statewide Family Council member, Melody Simle, whose brother has been incarcerated for 10 years, and who will soon support her brother through the reentry process. As her family prepares for reentry, Melody thinks back to ten years’ of missed holidays and birthdays with her brother. Their family has felt a deep sense of loss during his absence. His incarceration has also been financially devastating for some of his family. On top of exorbitant attorney fees, his wife of twenty years, who had been a homemaker prior to his arrest, was thrown into utter poverty when he was incarcerated. His wife was middle-aged and had health issues that prevented her from driving the many hours to the prison to visit him. Outside of food stamps and meagre financial aid from DSHS, there were no resources to help her survive, and she relied on Melody and other family members for support. Ultimately, the marriage ended in divorce.

As Melody’s brother gets closer to release, their family prepares by setting aside money to repair his teeth and physical health after a decade of inadequate prison healthcare. They feel poorly equipped to support him in his emotional transition from prison into the Free World. In some ways, Melody’s brother is more fortunate than most because he has a family home to return to and will not encounter the housing barriers most experience during reentry. Yet even with a strong support network, he will struggle with the post traumatic stress associated with incarceration. His family might vacillate between empathy and impatience if he can’t function in the Free World. What if he gets depressed and just lies on the couch? What if he can’t seem to get back into a normal work schedule?

This sort of story is disturbingly common in Washington State. As families try to survive incarceration, they are left to sink or swim, both financially and emotionally. We’d like to thank Angeline and Washington Appleseed for acknowledging our struggles and offering to help. We’ve come here today to share with you what kind of support we need as our families survive incarceration.

There are around 20,000 incarcerated people in the Washington State prison system, and this doesn’t include those under federal or county jurisdictions. These thousands of people may be supported by a broad range of biological and chosen family members, if the stress of incarceration does not result in estrangement from family. As indisputable research shows, our prison visiting rooms are places where parents, siblings, spouses, cousins, children, and friends of the incarcerated help improve recidivism outcomes, one visit at a time, against all odds, and with minimal support.

Families of the incarcerated typically are not recognized as secondary victims when a crime occurs. The public is rarely sympathetic to their plight. Thus, families do time along with their incarcerated loved ones. Family members must also wear multiple hats to support their incarcerated loved ones. In addition to being breadwinners and emotional supports, they must spend countless hours every month on phone calls and emails to hold prison staff accountable for providing basic services and humane treatment. Without family support, incarcerated people are treated with apathy at best and contempt at worst, and are left to fall through the cracks in every possible way.

The emotional and financial burden of this secondary incarceration hits families hard. Imagine a mother and father who have driven from Everett all the way to Walla Walla to visit their incarcerated son. It is Christmas Day and they haven’t seen him for three months. They encounter snowstorms as they drive east, adding considerable time to their drive. They arrive at the prison three minutes past the last call for visiting check-in. The mother pleads with the prison staff to make an exception and let them process in late, but rules are rules, and the officer does not budge. There is no sign in the lobby informing the mother and father that this officer is of the lowest rank, and that visitors have the right to request intervention from a sergeant or lieutenant. All the parents see is the intimidating uniform worn by a person of authority. They walk out to their car with heavy hearts and drive back across the mountains.

The burdens of incarceration tend to fall the heaviest on women in the family. This is especially true in disproportionately impacted communities, which may be hit multiple times by incarceration, within and across generations, often leaving one female breadwinner to support an entire extended family. I know a mother who is raising both her grandchildren and her nephew’s children because incarceration has been the fate of more than one young man in her family. I know another woman who spends her entire weekend visiting at two different prisons that are a two-hour drive apart because both her son and her husband are incarcerated.

Supporting a loved one through incarceration is becoming a larger burden on men in the family as well. Women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in our state, and it is no longer uncommon to hear of husbands becoming the primary nurturer for the entire family when their wives or daughters are incarcerated. Imagine a husband who is raising his two children alone. The youngest child, Marta, is seven and the oldest, Fabi, is nine. Their mother was arrested almost two years ago and for all that time they have only been able to visit her behind glass at the county jail. Now she has been sentenced and is housed at the women’s prison in Gig Harbor. When Fabi and Marta get to have their first contact visit with their mother, both girls want to sit on her lap and hug her tightly. However, Fabi is told that only her little sister can do so. Fabi, who has passed the cutoff age of eight, is now considered old enough to have to follow adult rules of affection in the visiting room. This is confusing and upsetting to Fabi, who now resents her little sister Marta for getting to share more affection with their mother during their three-hour visit.

Families of the incarcerated struggle with inhospitable prison visiting room environments that provide no sense of normalcy for family or marital relationships. We stand in long lines with other families to visit our loved ones and are pushed deeper and deeper into debt by private companies that contract with the Department of Corrections. These costs add up to thousands of dollars each year and can exacerbate the resentment families may find themselves feeling toward their incarcerated loved ones.

I know a woman in the peak of her youth whose husband is serving a lengthy sentence. He has no family other than her, and she has to be absolutely everything to him. She is his amateur paralegal when he files pro se petitions, and when her grad school peers go out on Friday nights, she has date night at the prison. She sleeps alone every night and stresses out on weekend mornings trying to find something to wear to the prison that complies with Puritanical dress codes but doesn’t make her feel completely ugly. When she arrives at the prison, the vending card loading machine eats her last twenty dollar bill and she has to borrow money from another visitor just to buy food for her husband. She feels somewhat happier when she enters the visiting room and sees his smiling face, but then a correctional officer walks by her table three different times to tell her she is holding hands with her husband at “the wrong angle.” She feels helpless, dissatisfied, and irritated, and a marital argument ensues with no privacy at all. She leaves visiting early in frustration, and when her husband tries to call her later to console her, they hear the recorded Global Tel Link voice saying, “Your AdvancePay account has a low balance. Please add funds now to accept more calls.”

For many incarcerated people, families are the only reentry plan. Yet support for families as they try to survive is lacking. The Department of Corrections Family Services Unit has six staff members to serve the families of 20,000 incarcerated people. Their work focuses primarily on children of the incarcerated, with few services for other types of family relationships. Families are unaware of what additional support might be available to them in the community. Where resources exist at all, they are fragmented and poorly advertised.

Families need a comprehensive toolkit that links them to resources, both during and after a loved one’s incarceration, to help them survive emotionally and financially. We are immensely grateful to Washington Appleseed for noticing our plight, and for taking tangible and meaningful steps to help alleviate our burdens by designing such a toolkit. We look forward to ongoing work with Angeline and all of you on this important area of need.

 

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About Loretta Rafay

Loretta received her MS in Environmental & Forest Sciences at the University of Washington (UW), with a research focus on the biochemistry and chemical ecology of grassland plants. She also holds a BA from UW in Asian Languages & Literature, with expertise in both Mandarin and Classical Chinese. She is the co-chair of the Washington Department of Corrections Statewide Family Council.