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We All Know Someone…Supporting Those We Love Who Are Incarcerated

July 7, 2011

Amicus Sr. Vice President Russel Balenger

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts in support of families and friends of those facing incarceration. If you’ve been in that situation, please consider helping others by commenting on this piece and sharing what you went through and what helped you along the way.

Imagine your son or best friend, mother or father or husband. Think of all your memories with them; the ones that make you laugh, or bring a tear to your eye.  What about your dreams for the future with them?

Now imagine that person arrested for a crime, and sentenced to prison. How do you respond to what can seem like a nightmare?

That answer is different for everyone, but often, the first step people take is to call a friend. Two such friends who have received a great number of calls over the years are Amicus President Louise Wolfgramm and Senior Vice President Russel Balenger.

Both agreed that the response to every situation is as different as the relationships we have. Still, some patterns tend to emerge.

Louise said that those who have contacted her have often felt the burden of more responsibility. They’re worried about the welfare of their loved one who could be facing years in prison.  They might be worried about the financial impact of an income earner in prison. They want to be supportive, but they don’t know how.

Furthermore, some people with a loved one in prison will isolate themselves in their attempts to keep what they might see as a shameful or embarrassing situation under wraps.

Louise advises those seeking support for an incarcerated loved one to first find the support they need themselves. Reach out to someone. It might be Amicus, but it might also be one’s pastor or rabbi, therapist or good friend.

“They can always call us, but whoever they contact, it’s usually good to just have someone to talk to; to get it off your chest,” Louise said.

Russel said he’ll often get calls immediately after an arrest.

“People want to talk to somebody they know who won’t be shocked; someone who will be comfortable with the situation and be familiar with the ups and downs people  can go through,” Russel said.

Friends or family members are often distraught and will seek his help, but sometimes they don’t even want to identify the person they’re seeking help for.  He said in that first stage, the best advice he can give is to focus on the facts. What is the person’s name? What did they do? Where are they being held? How long have they been in?

Russel often tries to help people seeking his support clear their vision about the reality of what’s happening.  Seeing a loved one in the justice system and being incarcerated is an extreme situation and it often draws out an extreme response. Russel said loved ones will sometimes tell themselves that it’s some huge mistake and that their son or daughter couldn’t possibly have committed the crime. On the flip side, Russel has seen others who will completely write off their loved one as a total failure, not worth their support any more.

Russel usually suggests a response somewhere in-between. Maybe something’s gone wrong for their family member. Maybe they made a mistake.  What are the realistic next steps?

No one wants to be in this kind of situation, but even if we don’t talk about it, many more people than you’d expect have gone through it or are currently going through it.  What they’ve learned is that there is almost always a brighter future ahead.

We all know someone. Maybe the first step to healing is to reach out to others who know someone too.

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