My Loved One Was Incarcerated and It Felt Like I Was in Prison, Too
A woman details how seven years of her life became dominated by her partner's time in the penitentiary.
I’d been stranded on the side of the mountain highway for more than two hours before anyone stopped to help me. The snow was falling heavily, I was soaked to the bone and my numb hands were unable to secure the chains on my tires.
I was terrified of driving through the twists and turns of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the snow. I hated taking time off work, paying for a motel and the five-hour drive in my 12-year-old car with a broken heater.
But it was the only way I could see my loved one since his arrest.
For seven years I lived my life this way, as a woman with an incarcerated mate: a woman who sacrificed my time, money, relationships and emotional well-being to support someone in jail. And the whole time I felt invisible.
That’s always the first word that comes to mind when I reflect on my experience. The stigma of loving a person in prison erases us from society. Gender roles and expectations obscure our emotional labor. Judgment from our close friends and family cloud our pain.
There Are Emotional and Financial Costs of Supporting an Incarcerated Loved One
One in four women in the United States has an incarcerated loved one. Most of us suffer in silence. We all hold the weight of stigma and isolation that comes with having a family member or partner in prison, but the resources to support us are virtually nonexistent. Rather, women with incarcerated loved ones are the support systems, for their loved ones and themselves.
When you’re a woman with someone you love in prison, you face your own kind of imprisonment. Although we live our lives in the free world, we face isolation, shame and economic marginalization the same way as the people we love in prison. We pay for phone calls, visits, commissary and legal fees, often finding ourselves shackled by debt.
For the first year of his incarceration, I paid more for collect phone calls each month than I did for rent. Each weekend visit cost me between $250 and $500. I managed to stay out of debt, for which I’m fortunate, but in the process I depleted my savings and barely kept my head above water.
Over the span of seven years, having a loved one in prison cost me around $45,000.
The costs to our emotional well-being are just as steep. According to a survey conducted by Essie Justice Group, 86 percent of women with incarcerated loved ones face “significant or extreme” strain on their mental health. That number increases to 94 percent when the incarcerated person is a romantic partner.
Like so many women in this situation, I suffered from depression and anxiety. Many days I woke up without the strength or motivation to get out of bed. Often I felt hopeless, like I wanted to end my life. Preparing for every weekend visit—the thought of facing the long drives and humiliation from correctional officers—made me tense and angry. The isolation and loneliness of missing my loved one caused deep sadness, and even after he was released I still carried PTSD from the experience.
I was filled with anger and resentment.
How To Cope With a Family Member in Jail As a Woman
Gender roles inform us that women are supposed to be nurturers, so caring for a loved one in prison is seen as an obligation rather than an admirable act of self-sacrifice. Gender roles inform us that women must put our needs to the side, so we don’t ask for the emotional support we need. Gender roles inform us that we must downplay our pain, so we center the pain of our loved ones in prison and suffer silently.
I won’t pretend there aren’t individuals in my life who see me and affirm my experience, but for the most part, women with incarcerated loved ones play the role of caregiver and provider without the recognition we deserve or the support we need. Pure love and compassion motivate so many of us to care for our incarcerated companions the way that we do, but sexism and shame still relegate us to the margins of society.
Political activist Angela Davis famously said, “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.” She was referring to incarcerated people, but the truth is, the women who love people in prison also disappear. More often than not, our experience is not validated or seen.
If you know a woman with an incarcerated loved one, take a moment to let her know she is valued and her pain is valid. If you are a woman with an incarcerated family member or partner, know that there is no shame in the love and compassion you have to offer, and that you are worthy of love and support in return. Although you may be on a long journey on a cold and lonely road, the snow will stop falling eventually—and you will be okay.