The following article originally appeared in Inside Journal, Prison Fellowship’s quarterly publication for men and women behind bars.
The young man in the orange jumpsuit held his face in his hands. The tattoo on one hand read “defiant.” “If only I’d been there with him—if only!” His shoulders began shaking as he buried his sobs, grieving the death of his father. There are few words that can bring comfort in moments like these.
As a prison chaplain, I often have the difficult responsibility of delivering news many prisoners dread: a loved one has died. I am always left raw from seeing how such news can rock a world, reducing the most hardened criminal to a puddle of devastation. It makes no difference whether the receiver is a drug addict or a serial killer—the reaction is usually the same. And my heart breaks with theirs every time.
Suffering far away from your loved ones is a cruel reality of prison life, but it runs both ways.
I also work as a Prison Fellowship program support specialist. I often find myself on the phone, listening to the tears of a mother, father, grandmother, or spouse as they share their desperation for their loved one behind bars. Often, they are wondering where their loved one is, what he’s going through, who she’s locked up with, or what they did wrong. One mother told me, “When my son went to prison, I went to prison.” Every-one wonders if they will ever get beyond the pain.
Once a month, I also facilitate a program called Hope’s Gate, a phone-in support group for families of those who are incarcerated. Though the voices from all across the country are different, the stories and pain are the same. On those calls, I realize I am speaking with the “other victims.” They are the ones who never get written about in newspapers—the family members who have watched their loved ones going downhill, been to countless court hearings, sunk their life savings into attorney fees or rehab programs, and who are raising the children incarcerated parents leave behind. These are the ones who will take another job to make ends meet in their old age. And while some may be partly to blame for their loved one’s road to prison, they also suffer in this journey.
Being both a chaplain and program support specialist offers me a unique, dual perspective that few people get to have. I see how prisoners are hurting, but I also see their loved ones’ pain. Both groups feel alone, but both groups can benefit from the comfort God offers. As a prison chaplain I tell people behind bars that the ground is level at the foot of the cross—in God’s eyes we have all messed up, and we all need His help. And as a program support specialist, I love being able to share the same message of forgiveness with the people who call in week after week, searching for hope, trying to find a way to work through the experience of having a loved one incarcerated.
If you find yourself wondering how you can support these under-recognized victims, here are a few suggestions:
- Invite God into your journey and ask Him to show you what you need to own—not just what the court says, but what you truly need to accept responsibility for. Stop blaming others, and then give your situation and yourself to God. The Bible tells us that if we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9). Remember, there’s no reformation without transformation!
- Write to your loved one and tell them you’re sorry—and mean it. Ask them to forgive you for your poor choices and actions. Remember, you can’t be responsible for how they react, but you can be responsible for what you say and do.
- Seek out Bible study groups and life-skills programs within your prison to grow beyond your current state. If you wait until you get out, you’ll never do it. You may need to speak with a chaplain or program manager to find out what is available to you.
- Whether you are a Christian or not, surround yourself with people who share positive values. We become like the people around us, and it’s important to associate with people who have their eyes set on living differently.
- And finally, pray for your loved ones. God is able to do far greater things than we can imagine, and our prayers do not go unheard (Ephesians 3:20-21).
On a recent Hope’s Gate call, I told the callers that they have the freedom to share or not, realizing many are hesitant because they fear judgment. In the last 15 minutes, we took prayer requests. From the hidden corners of the telephone connection, I heard a tearful voice that had not spoken before say, “Could you please pray for my grandson? I love him so very much and worry about him.”
Another unseen victim, this grandmother has not given up on her grandson, separated from her by prison bars and poor choices. In those remaining moments, we all tapped into the One who could bring the answers and turn everything around!