Christmas can be complicated—but never more so than when you have a loved one behind bars. Even if you have the resources and time to make a visit in person, there's no guarantee that a visit will go smoothly. Visits can bring up a lot of pressure and baggage from the past, creating opportunities for conflict, especially if contact has been infrequent leading up to the holidays. But visitation can also strengthen family ties and lift spirits on both sides of the bars.
Here are some strategies to help you make the most of your holiday heart-to-hearts:
The average family lives more than 100 miles away from their incarcerated loved one. Planning ahead is key to making any visit work. If you work outside the home, ask you supervisor for the time off as early as possible. And if finances for the trip (or even for a call) are an issue, consider setting some funds aside as part of your regular household budget. There are also some organizations that offer free, reduced-cost, or shared rides to correctional facilities.
If you have not visited your loved one's prison before, make sure you are familiar with the rules for visitation beforehand. Most departments of corrections make detailed guides for visitors, like this one from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, available online. If your loved one is in a federal facility, start here.
Pay special attention to the items you can and cannot bring with you, acceptable forms of ID, and the number of people allowed in the visiting area at one time (this total may include infants). If you are bringing young children with you, make sure you go over the security procedures and other rules—like whether they can have physical contact—ahead of time. This can help reduce anxiety and disappointment during the visit. Finally, make sure everyone is on the visiting list who needs to be.
BRING THE RIGHT CLOTHING
Most correctional facilities have detailed lists of clothing that are not permitted. The wrong color or even the wrong material—like underwire in a bra—can get you turned away. And because many prisons are so far from a store, you might not even be able to go out and buy something appropriate on the same day.
Because visiting a loved one in prison can take so much work and sacrifice on your part, your expectations might be high. But even when everyone in the visiting area is trying their best, there is nothing "normal" about this situation. It's understandable for you, your incarcerated loved one, or your children to feel stressed or sad just because of the circumstances. Young children might cry or ask to go home. Older children become withdrawn and give one-word answers. When the visit isn't going as planned, taking a deep breath and acknowledging that these tough emotions are natural can go a long way.
Sometimes, you just can't make a visit work. You can't get time away from your job, the finances aren't adding up, or a visit would not be in the best interests of your child. It's O.K. to say "no" to a visit when you need to. In these cases, you might consider sending cards or a care package (in line with the facility’s regulations) to help brighten your loved one's holidays. There are even some low-cost apps that let you send a photo to your loved one directly from your smart phone.
HAVE A PLAN
If your call or visit will be divided between multiple children or loved ones, it might help to try to give everyone a chance for a few minutes of one-on-one time. Since young children often have a hard time waiting for their turn, you might let them go first. You might also want to plan a seasonal activity, like reading the Christmas story together from the New Testament or a Christmas-themed storybook. Some families find it meaningful to pray together over everyone's needs.
SET GROUND RULES
To help keep the visit on track, it can help to set some ground rules. That could include simple things like agreeing to be kind, and giving one another permission to openly discuss your emotions. It might also mean agreeing to shelve a hot-button topic if one of you isn’t ready to discuss it. For more ideas on how to help a visiting-room conversation go well, go here.
Research indicates that regular contact with loved ones on the outside can be good for a prisoner's rehabilitation, and good for families, too. If staying in contact is appropriate for you and your family, consider ways you might keep strengthening those bonds throughout the year. If you are caring for children under 18 who have a parent in prison, you can also ask the parent behind bars to be on the lookout for Angel Tree applications. Angel Tree allows incarcerated parents to sign their children up to receive a Christmas gift in their name. (Restrictions apply; the application must be submitted by the incarcerated parent by the September deadline each year.)