Coping with a friend or relative in prison

Grief and loss

Many describe the imprisonment of a family member like grief and loss. Even though they can see the person the loss of the person in their lives is real.

A lack of social support around the family can make it hard to express sadness openly. This can sometimes result if feelings are being hidden from others and trying to soldier on. Short term this may work however people do better if they can talk through how they feel.

Talking with someone outside of your family and friends network can sometimes be easier.

How families and friends feel

Families and friends of prisoners may experience a range of feelings and emotions.

Discrimination, fuelled by a fear of crime, and negative beliefs may be experienced by families of prisoners. Families may find even relatives are judgemental and fearful. Attention from the media along with the community can often put the pressure on family.

There may be a sense of relief felt if the person goes to prison. Life may become calmer and more predictable if a person goes to prison.

There could also be a feeling of assuming that others around the community are judging them. Fear of rejection can lead people to isolate themselves from others.

Looking after yourself

If a family member is in prison it may be hard to focus on your own needs.

It's important to look after your health and wellbeing. Sometimes signs of stress can be overlooked. Everyone can feel stress differently so it's important to develop an approach to managing it.

The self-care suggestions that follow are a guide. If you can’t find strategies that work for you, or you find you’re relying on drugs or alcohol or other unhealthy behaviours to cope, you may find it helpful to talk with your doctor, or look for assistance from a psychologist, social worker or counsellor.

Common signs of stress:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • undereating or overeating
  • difficulty communicating
  • easily irritated, and
  • muscle tension and headaches.

Ways to ease stress:

  • try to do regular exercise
  • get enough sleep
  • talk with someone about your feelings
  • eat healthy food three times a day
  • be gentle and patient with yourself
  • take time for yourself, and
  • do something nice for your body i.e. take a bubble bath or get a massage.

Living as a partner of a prisoner

Partners of those in prison may have some adjustments to make within their daily lives. The financial situation, housing and social networks may be impacted by having a partner in prison.

You’ll also have to adjust to a relationship with your partner through visits, phone calls and letters, instead of being with them day to day.

As prisoners are cut off from the outside world, partners may experience pressure from the prisoner to visit frequently.

Although you may want to visit every week it may not be possible due to cost and travelling times. It's important that you arrange a realistic visiting plan together.

As a partner of a prisoner it's important that you consider the level of financial support you are able to provide to the prisoner.

Relationships can become strained when a prisoner remains dependent on their partner throughout their sentence and expects their partner to focus considerable attention on them. The prisoner’s situation may not change much during that time.

You may have to take on new roles and responsibilities as you cope in the community on your own.

Communication is the most important ingredient for maintaining a close relationship with your partner in prison. It’s important to share what’s going on with your partner, including both the positive and the negative events. Good communication involves recognising what your partner may be experiencing and how this may impact on their communication with you.*

Parents of prisoners

Parents may often experience a range of emotion if their son or daughter is in prison.

Common reactions to imprisonment might include:

  • anger
  • worry
  • shame
  • isolation and alienation
  • relief
  • self blame, and
  • uncertainty.

There are no ‘shoulds’ or 'musts' when it comes to providing support to a son or daughter in prison.

However it is important to think about your own needs and limitations, and those of others in the family. Imprisonments may lead to differing and conflicting views within the family. *

* information courtesy of NSW Families Handbook, a joint initiative of Corrective Services NSW and the Community Restorative Centre