You thought the day would never come. After all the missed holidays and birthdays, your loved one is being released from prison! You’re anxious to see them and nervous about them getting back on their feet.
Returning citizens need support from loved ones like you. It’s likely that you are looking for ways to prepare for their reentry, and it’s good that they won’t be alone. But we encourage you to proceed with a plan and with some caution. If you’re not intentional, some actions might ultimately be more harmful than helpful.
Here are three things not to do when your loved one is being released.
1. DON'T FORGET HOW THEY FEEL
People about to be released from prison usually experience fear, anxiety, excitement, and expectation, all mixed together. Freedom is thrilling, but once they’re out, they may feel there’s a sign above their head telling everyone they’re a former prisoner. They don’t know where they’ll live, whether they’ll find a job, or how to get to from place to place. They’ve probably seen enough friends come back into prison to know it won't be easy.
To put it simply, they’re overwhelmed.
Families and friends often want their returning loved ones to pick up where they left off, especially if the former prisoner is a parent. But it helps to remember what your loved one felt like when they were a prisoner. Inside of the institution, he or she can make few, if any, decisions. There’s little flexibility. And there are very few options.
None of that is true on the outside. Men and women returning home are overwhelmed by the number of decisions to be made in a short period, and confused when it seems like there’s more than one “right” choice.
Put yourself in their shoes and consider how they’re feeling before deciding how to help.
2. DON'T FORGET TO SET BOUNDARIES
Boundaries are critical to a successful reentry. Without them, there are opportunities for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and missteps. Your loved one will benefit from a clear reentry plan that sets expectations and responsibilities around issues like free time, finances, house rules, and the negative behaviors that caused problems in the past. While it may seem uncomfortable to discuss previous failures, it will help promote future wins and transition to life on the outside. This is a time to be lovingly truthful and not make assumptions.
You may find yourself faced with questions like: How much financial help should I give? Should I lend money? Should I give rides even if public transportation is available?
Each situation is unique, so there are no easy answers. But keep in mind the purpose of boundaries:
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” ― Henry Cloud, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life
Without boundaries, you risk enabling negative behavior from your loved one. The behaviors you enable you also reinforce. To avoid enabling these harmful behaviors, be careful to set respectful, loving boundaries.
For example, if your loved one has a history of substance abuse, encourage them to attend a Celebrate Recovery group or NA/AA meeting and secure a sponsor. If they relapse, quickly have a follow-up discussion about prearranged expectations and boundaries, including consequences. Your loved one needs to know that you believe they are capable of overcoming their addiction and living a flourishing life.
Setting boundaries helps your loved one identify what they’re responsible for, giving them purpose and leading them into a new life of freedom.
3. DON'T DO ALL THE WORK
Even if you have established healthy boundaries, you may be tempted to take over planning for your loved one’s reentry, but don’t. Denise Harris, Prison Fellowship’s Michigan field director, explains, “You want to be careful not to enable the former prisoner, or they will be dependent on you indefinitely.”
Tom Lundquist, Prison Fellowship’s reentry manager at Lino Lakes and Shakopee in Minnesota, says no one should be working harder at helping a former prisoner integrate back into society than the returning citizen. If the motivation to succeed doesn’t come from inside, external motivation will only carry him or her so far. Doing things for your loved one, while kind on the surface, doesn’t respect their ability to make changes on their own, and it doesn’t promote personal growth and responsibility. We all enjoy the feeling of accomplishing something for ourselves through hard work and determination.
Many prisoners develop a reentry plan before their release that includes information like where they will work, how they will get there, and where they will live. Be sure your loved one has a solid plan before agreeing to help. If possible, request that your loved one and their parole officer join you in a meeting to go through the plan together, so everyone is on the same page.
Don’t do all the work for your returning citizen, but do let them know you believe in them and support them. Encourage them to take ownership in the process and demonstrate their desire to live a changed life by finding a job, staying clean, and meeting their parole requirements.
HELP FOR A HEALTHY REENTRY
Institutionalization encourages incarcerated men and women to feel incapable of or not responsible for making good decisions. By doing too much for them, you reinforce that attitude. But if you kindly and firmly maintain your boundaries, you are showing your loved one that you believe they can be competent and responsible adults.
Recovering from the losses and dehumanization of incarceration won’t happen overnight. It takes time and ongoing support. The healing and restoration of former prisoners is most effective when they have the help and involvement of people like you who are committed to their success. You can provide the tangible and emotional support your loved one needs by investing in their reentry in healthy ways.