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Losing someone, regardless of where and who you are, can create a void. It can take a toll on every aspect of your life. So much so that anxiety can run deep with depression knocking on the door with thoughts of suicide creeping in like a thief in the night. The pain that prisoners experience cannot be an experience they overcome solely from their prison cell. Silent screams of pain and frustration can ring around the prison long after a loved one’s passing. They may feel lost, powerless, and hopeless. Even prisoners who are known for their tough exterior can internally go to pieces.
There are several ways a prisoner receives news of a loved one’s death. First, a family member on the outside of the prison walls can try to get through to the prisoner. The family member can work on reaching or leaving a message via a telephone call with their counselor, the warden, the lieutenant, or the chaplain. This most times does not guarantee that it gets delivered. Even if it does, it might take a while before inmates get the news of their loved one's passing.
Secondly, inmates may call their family members and, surprisingly, receive the news of the death. However, this is only possible if the family members can afford to accept the calls.
Finally, the news of a loved one’s death can be shared with a prisoner in a letter, by mail, or by email. Snail mail might take 14 – 21 days before getting to the prison. For prisoners, receiving postal service mail usually makes their day. However, their excitement can quickly dissipate when they read the mail content that conveys the passing of the inmate’s loved one, family member, or friend.
Despite losing connection with the loved one for years, having to read about their death can further deepen the hurt. To help prisoners cope with the grief of losing a loved one, depending on what facility an inmate is located at, the Bureau of Prisons has a responsibility to inmates that have lost a loved one. Laws and procedures put in place for prisoners can help inmates to find closure in the death of a loved one. There are programs that help with this cause, and one of such is Furlough. This procedure allows inmates to leave the prison temporarily on a compassionate basis. It could be for the visitation of a sick relative, medical reasons, or the funeral of a loved one.
Incarceration is already devastating for inmates. Losing a loved one in the process can send them to a state of total disregard for life. Despite any responsibilities of the Bureau of Prisons, it can be helpful for us to help an incarcerated loved one cope with the news and trauma of death in their family or of someone they knew.
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Here are seven ways you can help an
incarcerated loved one bear the loss of a family member or friend.
Understand The Process
Informing a prisoner about the death of a loved
one should be done in person and with care. However, the distance may not allow
you to travel to the inmate to share the terrible news with them. The first
step in relaying the unfortunate information that their loved one, family
member, or friend has passed away is to allow them time to process the bad
news, express any feelings, and grieve. Even if it is for 30 minutes or the
entire visit, let the prisoner feel peace, love, and care from your presence.
This measure is part of the healing process. You must understand that the only
memory the prisoner has of the loved one could be years ago. The pain for the
prisoner is not only about the loss. The pain can involve the fact that the
inmate was not there to see the deceased one last time. Allow them to feel the
pain and grieve. Be willing to listen and hear them out from feelings of
disappointment, anger, or sadness. Be mindful of the words you say and the
responses you give them. Using the right words and relating to their feelings
can help the situation. Help the inmate realize that it is necessary to cry and
feel sad. They can live life in memory of them and remember the good times they
shared. Give the prisoner any factual
details of the death and answer any questions you know. Some prisons allow
inmates to go to the funerals of immediate family members. This decision is
ultimately up to the Bureau of Prisons. It can depend on factors such as the
costs of a van, gas, correctional officers who accompany them, and any other
staff. The family members and friends of prisoners are not always able to
afford funeral expenses. Inquire if they would like for you to get them the
deceased’s obituary, instead. Offer to get them the phone numbers of people
they had in common with their deceased loved one as possible support.
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Support The Prisoner
Encourage the prisoner to keep happy memories
of the deceased alive. Ask the inmate if they would like any writings or items
you have in your possession from the deceased. Make sure any items do not
violate the rules or policies of the Bureau of Prisons. It may help them
connect to their deceased loved one in good ways while managing and healing
from the bad news. Send or make the prisoner greeting cards, letters, emails (if
possible), and talk with them on phone calls to check on them and keep them
uplifted. Remember their birthdays, special occasions, holidays they may
celebrate, and significant dates of happy memories they shared with the
deceased. Whether the inmate is getting out soon or not, assure them that you
will be there for them with better days to come and regardless of the pain they
Regular visitations are another way of helping
inmates cope with the news of death. In prison, there is a sense of loneliness or
feelings of isolation that can grip inmates from time to time. They may feel
cut off from the world as they knew it, and the only ”freedom” they have is dwelling
within the four walls of their prison cell, recreation yard, or chow hall.
Hence, your visit to them in prison after the death of their loved one can help
to reduce their pain, loneliness, anxiety, and trauma.
Chaplain and Counsellor
You can encourage the prisoner to share their
feelings and grief with a chaplain, counselor, clergy, and any support groups.
Talking to someone can help in the grieving process. Some inmates speak with
clergy or a counselor to help them ease their trauma. Spiritual and mental
health options can improve the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects
of the prisoner. It can be tough dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one
while in confinement, but the chaplain or counselors as guides can help set the
person on a better or different path. The gathering of people of the same or
similar faith can improve the prisoner's mental health and morale and set them
on a manageable journey.
Writing in a Journal
Sometimes, inmates may not want to talk to a
chaplain or clergy or do not believe in any religion. However, you can
encourage them to have a personal journal where they write down their feelings
to cope with and transition from the loss. Prisoners who are into arts or
crafts may draw, write poetry, or rap lyrics to help them cope with losing a
loved one. Communication, whether oral or written, may help to reduce the
trauma and the pain. Imagine how devastating it could feel for a prisoner if
they expected to see their deceased loved one during an upcoming visit or
intended to make amends with them to squash any disagreements but never had the
chance. Encourage them to journal about this if this is the case. Encourage
them to involve themselves in positive activities if they do not feel
comfortable writing in a journal.
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Meditation & Prayer
Discuss the option of meditation with the
inmate for them to cope with the loss. The smallest amount of peace and
details, if remembered, can bring a smile to their face and mentally help them
to manage the loss. If you have other ideas that can help them, you can share
them with the prisoner. Meditation can be done in their cell or if they get
placed into solitary confinement as well. Encourage them not to do anything
knowingly, voluntarily, and intentionally that violates the prison rules to get
sent to solitary confinement. Prayer for and with them during visits and on the
phone if they do not mind.
Goal Setting Is A Healthy Coping
By assuring the inmate that everything will be
alright even after the bad news, you can suggest the inmate work on
establishing goals inside and outside of their prison cell. This measure can
form a healthy distraction from their emotions, pain, and trauma and help them
stay focused on achieving good things for themselves. Encourage the prisoner to
re-focus their energy into constructive activities like working out, enrolling
into an education program, support groups, and other activities that may help
them manage the sad news. Let them know that, overall, it is imperative to find
and create for themselves as many moments of peace in between any chaos and
feelings without negatively imposing their grief onto others.
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There are several ways to help an incarcerated
loved one get through receiving the news about the death of their loved one,
family member, or friend. Help a prisoner to understand the process when they
receive bad news of losing a loved one. Encourage the prisoner to grieve and
manage the bad news. Encourage the prisoner to talk with a counselor or
chaplain. Encouraging a prisoner to write in a journal, meditate and pray, and
create and involve themselves in goals to cope with loss. Love, support, and
empathy must be the central themes of this whole process. You have to show the
inmate genuine love and treat them as if they are not just a number in a prison
For more information on helping prisoners through
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