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When a Loved One is Incarcerated


Few people talk about it, but the numbers tell the story.

Nearly half of all Americans have a loved one who has spent time in prison, with an estimated five million children having at least one parent incarcerated during their lifetime. In Pennsylvania, about 62,000 people are currently in custody, and nearly 80,000 children in the Commonwealth have a parent who is incarcerated.

“We hear from more than 100 family members on a weekly basis,” says Kirstin Cornnell, Family and Community Support Director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. According to Cornnell, “Family members often have questions or concerns about loved ones in prison, and that’s where the Society comes in. Some want to learn how their loved ones can access health care. Others call to report allegations of abuse, neglect, or unsafe conditions such as lack of heat or running water. The Society advocates for these families. They follow up and physically check on loved ones by tapping into a network of more than 300 volunteers across the state.”

The Impact of Incarceration on Mental Health

Families can experience significant stress when a loved one is in prison. The Society offers advice on everything from making ends meet in the absence of a family member’s income to supporting children affected by a loved one’s incarceration.

“A lot of the anxiety is dealing with the lack of control,” Cornnell says. “The windows for when you can talk to or visit a loved one when they are incarcerated are limited. You can’t talk to them when you want to. That’s a big adjustment. The other piece is fear and worry for the loved one’s safety. There’s a limited amount we can do about the conditions, but we can give the family a safe space to talk.”

There is also a great need for additional family support. “We’re trying to fill that space by launching support groups,” says Cornnell. “You can’t do it alone. Due to the scale of mass incarceration, if you haven’t had a loved one incarcerated, you likely know somebody who knows somebody who has been involved in the system. Talking to people in a similar circumstance goes a long way.”

To reduce the family’s anxiety, the Society staff explain the processes for things like visitation and sending mail. They also teach family members how to become advocates for their loved ones. In addition, they help family members set up electronic accounts to arrange visitation, which is critical for everyone’s mental health.

Family Visits are Important

“We try to encourage people to take advantage of visits as much as possible, whether in person or on video,” Cornnell says. The more you can keep in touch, the better. Research shows that people in prison who receive frequent visitors are less likely to return to prison. They are also more likely to have relationships they can rely on when they are released.

And although some adults hesitate to bring children to a prison, research shows that in-person visits are important for children affected by incarceration. But children need to be prepared for what to expect during a visit.

“It’s important to remind loved ones that they’re still part of the family,” Cornnell says. “Physical separation can’t break the bonds of love. We’re all more than the worst thing we’ve done, and family is there for you.”

Resources for Families

If you have a loved one who is incarcerated, the following resources may be helpful:

For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.



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