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How to Support Inmates in Prison and Out
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What Prison is Really Like
Fair Warnings for Smooth Sailing
Have you ever wondered how some people who decide to write prisoners get caught up emotionally and end up in prison themselves? Here are five tips to help protect yourself from unintentionally becoming an emotional or financial casualty by participating in inmate correspondence that leads to relationship inside or outside of prison.
1. Be introspectively honest with yourself about your motives in relationships with prisoners. Are you emotionally compromised in your own situation and vulnerable to inmates? Do you believe that anyone in prison needs you to rescue them, or that they couldn't survive without your help? If so, you should probably evaluate yourself and get some counseling before embarking on this endeavor.
Have you heard a sad story about someone's brother, friend or husband ended up in prison, and how unfair it all is? Let's face it, all of us want to make a difference in someone's life. The questions we must answer are who, and why we feel a desire to be involved. Most everyone deserves a second chance, right? Of course there are exceptions, but it is good to ask, "how often has this person been in trouble before?"
Whether you accept it or not, the truth is that it takes a conscious effort for anyone to be repeatedly involved in criminal activity. Realize that many who have served prison time have been habitual offenders. You can't reform anyone, because it is their choice, but you can be a positive influence if a new lifestyle is part of the road they choose.
2. If you communicate with a prisoner by mail, unless they are a family member and you are aware of their situation, do not respond immediately to requests to send money. Hygiene items are provided by the state in most prisons as are meals, envelopes and clothing. Within a month, you will know what their agenda is, if you pay attention and read carefully. I know because I have been there.
The normal pattern is to start out asking for something small, and if they can elicit a generous response. work into getting more. I have heard prisoners on the phone making angry demands from their wives, parents and even children. I am always shocked at the things that they believe they "must have" but for some this is a lifelong pattern of entitlement that could use interruption. Inmates are patient, they have time to wait and figure out another angle.
Most prisons also provide opportunities to work for minimal compensation to cover their basic needs, and most prisoners need that experience. Some have never worked in the free world, or worked so little that a chief lesson to be learned is that no matter what the pay is or how long their stay is, it requires humility.
Work gives a person dignity when they rely on their own skills or abilities to not just survive but contribute. Work can keep them busy and focused, which is a good outcome for any human being. They may have the opportunity to learn skills that would keep them from being indigent upon release and cause them to be less of a burden to society. Work in prison becomes a privilege if it is handled responsibly.
Being constructively busy also helps them to not become involved in activities with other offenders who are busy concocting get-rich-quick schemes. Believe me. they spend a considerable amount of time figuring out how to make up the money they lose when they get caught and are sentenced to prison. They have a lot of time to converse and share the information, and of course they have television and other media fostering that mindset.
3. If you choose to visit a prisoner, even if you are married to them, do not constantly rearrange your schedule to accommodate their requests to visit them every week. You need to establish a balanced life that includes time for rest and recreation if you want to be able to support them well emotionally and spiritually. If you are visiting out of obligation or fear, stop until you take care of yourself and can say no comfortably.
Prisoners may express loneliness, but it is also a time when they need to think about what they have done, and to reflect on the behavior that resulted in their incarceration. If they don't experience the loss of missing family events and other priviliges, usually there is little motivation to change.
Don't be afraid to speak with their case manager if you are able, to find out how to best support them realistically. I say this because prison has a tendency to isolate from reality, and expectations may be unreasonable as a result. Case managers often have a more objective view on what is needed for change. Often, they will keep you on a hook because they have other charges pending and "need your support". What that really means is that you may be held hostage to further expectations they have for their future. This can be a never ending cycle. Ask questions, and if they don't answer, be aware.
4. When it comes to correspondence, be caring, not co-dependent. Try to remember this person probably was getting along just fine before their incarceration. They have a lot of free time which is often occupied by writing letters and calling home collect far too often to prove they are still in control of their lives.
Make sure you aren't afraid to them the truth about how you experience life as a result of their actions. Be honest about the financial burden or they may avoid accepting any responsibility themselves and expect more than you are able to manage.
Some correctional systems provide opportunities to use their trades or skills to support their families. Someone who is making progress in change won't want their family to do without. They will be humble enough to not make those demands constantly. Remember to keep your expectation of the system reasonable. Correctional staff are not there to facilitate comfort, they are there to protect the public and others from criminal behavior. It is not a place where you will experience warmth and caring.
If you sense they get angry when you can't do more, its probably best to put time between phone calls and visits or distance between you and them for awhile, and for some permanently. In reality, you should feel the freedom to challenge any behavior they exhibit that is questionable, if they are sincere, they won't be offended.
5. When released from prison it is usually best not to allow them to come directly to your home, especially if they have habitually failed on parole in the past. Once again, there are exceptions, but it is important for you to be safe, so be cautiously wise.
It is a fact that most inmates who do fail often, can't handle the lack of structure and freedom. They may need to be supervised more closely by someone who is aware of their criminal behavior. Good parole officers respond accordingly by pushing back by imposing restrictions when necessary. however the system and the number of parolees can affect the availability of staff. If they start making excuses about doing U.A.'s or reporting, there is a reason, and you better pay attention or you could be wrapped up in something that could hurt you significantly.
They may have you convinced that you are their only hope of parole. This sometimes indicates that they are in a hurry to be released (who wouldn't be) and not in actuality ready. There are always other options available that they may need to wait for. Let the process frustrate them and you will see who they really are.
If you say no, they may need to adjust to their anxiety about getting out. Since it is human nature to want to be free, most inmates are thinking about getting out before they have even begun their sentence.
Almost all inmates are required to look for work as part of their parole plan, and report to a parole officer in addition to drug and/or alcohol testing daily. They will need to handle these things well before they progress to freedom, so let them go through the process.
Time proves out to be a great ally, as temperance is accomplished through not always getting their way. Criminal thinking has the distinction of believing that they are the exception to the rule, and they shouldn't have to do what is required to prove responsibility.
There are agencies in place to provide bus tokens, clothing, job interview training and other incidentals which they have to make an effort to appropriate. They will have many needs when they leave prison.
The people trained who provide the structure they need to succeed also will require accountability. Structure will actually help them correct their course if they make that choice. If you see a pattern of complaining about this, be cautious, it is known to be a precursor to violating parole.
There are programs in place to help them face the issues they need to, so don't be afraid to ask them what programs they are attending to make changes. Of course there are people who are outside of prison who do criminal things, but that does not negate the reality there are manipulators in prison and a good number of them compare notes.
Let them progress and get the help they need from those who are familiar with the system which is in place to protect the public from the games inmates play. This will allow for a monitored transition which will help them to walk the line they need to succeed. It will save emotional wear and tear on you and your loved ones, and provide a safety net.
You can always visit them and encourage them over the phone until they are ready to be off parole, and they will learn to respect themselves for doing what is right. When they progress gradually, they are more likely to succeed, and you are less likely to be disappointed.
There is always a risk involved, but sometimes the work is worth it, as you see some progress to a better life. I have many men and women I work with who have made the transition, adhered to the requirements, and gone on to flourish in helping others succeed. I have also been on the other side of that risk with some who will use you up until your resources and emotions are drained.
There is no more rewarding career than helping others through difficult seasons of their lives. You can make a difference, if you are realistic, optimistic, and well-informed about the processes.
Granted the system has many flaws and strengths. Books by Dr. Samenow like Inside the Criminal Mind are insightful. George F. Cole's The American System of Criminal Justice is a thorough, informative study of the system that I keep on hand when people are seeking counsel or understanding.
Incidentally, having assisted offenders in transition, these guidelines have been essential in determining and aiding those who are truly committed to a crime-free, non-dependent lifestyle. If you follow them, you will most likely experience safety and protect the security of your loved ones.
Finally, remember It is not a crime to say no when you feel the need to.
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