For several years, our Tough Conversations blogs have mainly focused on families and aging. Sig’s current blog explores a different but equally challenging area of family interaction: namely, how families and returning citizens can prepare to reunite after the latter’s release from incarceration.
One of the toughest conversations I can think of is that of a returning citizen (ex-offender) with his or her family members prior to or after release from prison. After years of incarceration, how does an individual re-unite with his or her family?
Maintaining family contact while incarcerated is challenging. It’s said that when a person enters prison, the entire family (figuratively) accompanies him or her. Imagine a Dad not seeing his kids grow up for 15 years. Or a Mom, sentenced to 10 years behind bars and separated from her baby before its first birthday. This happens constantly.
The situation in Washington, DC, is especially grievous because DC does not have its own prison system. In 1997 Congress transferred its parole, probation and pre-trial services to the federal government. While DC operates a jail for persons awaiting trial or who committed misdemeanors, convicted felons end up in U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities throughout the US – some as far away as California.
Don’t get me wrong: convicted criminals should receive punishment. But remember the impact on a felon’s family can be lasting. Especially if a felon is incarcerated more than a couple of hundred miles from home. Visits can be financially impossible. Letters and calls may occur if family members are willing to write or phone. Resentment, anger and shame may inhibit them from maintaining contact with an incarcerated loved one. In time, inmates risk losing touch with their families and miss out on major events like school graduations, religious rites of passage, and important social occasions.
What happens when an inmate nears release date? How can frayed family ties be reinstated?
One example is Maryland’s Community Mediation Program (CMMD). Since 2008, CMMD has provided opportunities for inmates and family members or other support people to meet, with the help of a mediator, before release to have an open, honest, and often difficult dialogue to prepare for returning to their community. Re-entry mediation creates a space for everyone involved to talk about their experiences, be heard by each other, and establish a plan on how to move forward productively before the individual is released. A 2012 study found that recidivism fell by 12 per cent among returning citizens who engaged in Maryland’s re-entry mediation program. For more information on this program, check: http://mdmediation.org.
A number of states have instituted re-entry programs. Some are a version of Restorative Justice, others are called re-integration circles. Many are based on ancient social practices of indigenous and non-Western societies. Whatever their origin, they are ways to smooth the path of returning citizens back to their families and society.
Forthcoming blogs will examine other approaches to returning citizens’ re-entry home.