May 16, 2013

Recovery and re-entry

In many communities, nearly every child has a parent or close relative who has been incarcerated. How can we lessen the impact of this trauma?

There’s no easy way forward. In some institutions it’s almost impossible for security reasons to send a child’s letters, pictures, and art to an incarcerated parent.

And once a parent returns home, new obstacles to rebuilding family relationships emerge.
  • Can childcare centers use parents with criminal records as staff or program volunteers?
  • In your state, can parents help coach baseball if they have a felony conviction?
  • Can you have a school picnic and invite known felons?
  • What is the minimum level of screening and precaution we must support?
  • What safety policies make sense when family reunification is the whole point?
Meanwhile, the returning parent must deal with the mental health effects of incarceration.
  • Thinking has been affected. People lose “executive function,” the ability to make plans or take action when there are no clear guidelines. The only way to get this back is to practice rational thinking: Generate options, then choose. Develop rules to help guide choices. It helps to have someone to help reality-check.
  • Feelings are affected. Shame, fear, depression, anger, trauma. These must be handled and processed, not repressed. People need a support system that helps them regain capacity to be vulnerable and trusting.
  • Relationships are critically important, but need to be rebuilt. This is unavoidable tough work.
  • Information is missing. Time and technology has moved forward while the person has been away.
  • The person must leave the unsafe community, and commit to living in a positive safe world. Prisons and jails are communities. People can miss them, and grieve over relationships and former lives. But they are neither safe nor positive.
What safe, positive places are available and welcoming in your community? What strategies can we recommend for people who return from prison having paid their debt to society?

As a practical matter, I think that the strategy for recovery from prison is exactly the same as the strategy for recovery from any other mental health problem.  People must learn about what they are facing, recruit allies, find resources, plan short term and long term, and follow their plan.

As they develop plans, people should answer four questions:
  • What helps the person make the most of their talents and capacities? 
  • What makes the person less vulnerable? 
  • What helps build capacity to handle stress? 
  • What must the person do to address the risk of something going wrong?

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