Can relatives of prisoners shake the shame and demand family-friendly policies?

Relatives of Prisoners

By Jarvis DeBerry, via The Times-Picayune


There are enough Louisianians who have incarcerated loved ones to effectively pressure politicians to make it easier for families to stay connected during those incarcerations. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  So think of how many people on the outside have people they miss on the inside.


But as we’ve seen in “Family Sentence,” an illuminating series written by my colleagues Jonathan Bullington and Richard Webster, our criminal justice policies don’t typically prioritize the needs of the prisoners’ families.  Magistrates and judges regularly impose bail on pre-trial suspects – even if they’re not a flight risk or a threat to the public.  The Louisiana Department of Corrections often assigns prisoners to facilities far away from home.  And even though the Public Service Commission has put some restrictions on the cost of prison phone calls, many family members still can’t afford to hear the voices of their loved ones.


There are an estimated 94,000 children in Louisiana who have or have had an incarcerated parent.  Many of those incarcerated parents have parents.  They have siblings, significant others, spouses.  All those people together form a sizable demographic, one that should be able to demand more family-friendly policies.


But that hasn’t happened. Shame keeps many people from revealing their relationships to prisoners.  This shame persists even in places with super high incarceration rates.


For his 2004 book “Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America,” Donald Braman, now a George Washington University law professor, spent four years conducting interviews with people in Washington, D.C., with loved ones behind bars.  Braman writes that “nearly every longtime resident of the District whom I have spoken with has been able to name several friends or family members who had once been or were presently incarcerated.”  However, “None had ‘come out’ completely in their extended families and at church and work.”


Consequently, not only were the distance and the expensive phone calls tearing up their relationships with their incarcerated loved ones, but their habit of lying about their loved ones’ whereabouts was tearing up their relationships with people on the outside.


“It’s how people look at you,” a woman with an imprisoned husband told Braman.  “They don’t respect you because your husband is incarcerated.”


For our “Family Sentence” series Bullington interviewed the Richardsons.  It appears that the six sons of Robert Richardson have managed to thrive despite their father’s 60-year sentence for bank robbery. For example, two sons have completed college; twin sons are freshmen at Tulane. The youngest son, who’s 10, said he used to take the lead from an older brother and make up stories about his father being away on business. When he finally began telling the truth he did so without knowing “if people would judge me on this or that or make fun of me.”


The children’s mother, Sibil, who helped her husband hatch the harebrained scheme to rob a bank, said, “Each one of our children we have tried to give them enough love and confidence to try and combat the truth: that it is embarrassing, it is humiliating. It is long suffering that we have endured. And we have created a hell of a mask as a family to cover it up.”


The embarrassment and humiliation Richardson describes and that Braman’s interview subjects describe may be the biggest impediment to new criminal justice policies.  And such changes are needed to keep more families from being irrevocably torn apart by incarceration.  One doesn’t have to have a high opinion of the Richardson parents to nod along with her statement: “Children have a right to their parents regardless of whether or not the parents have broken the law.”


Strong bonds benefit all of us.  If inmates are allowed to maintain strong bonds with their families, they are less likely to get in trouble in prison and less likely to get in trouble when they’re released. There’s not enough room to list all the ways children suffer when their connection with a parent is severed.


Liberals and conservatives have lately been finding common ground on issues related to criminal justice reform.  There should be consensus here that family integrity is a good thing, that it’s bad when families fall apart.


Braman says in his introduction that his isn’t a liberal, let’s-have-more-rights-for-offenders book; but he also argues that conservatives who speak of personal accountability should acknowledge that “incarceration not only provides offenders with an excuse for not contributing to the welfare of their families and communities, but it practically enforces their noncontribution.”


The families of prisoners are bearing the brunt of this  “enforced irresponsibility and unaccountability.”


And there are lots of such families out there.  May they shed the shame and openly demand what’s best for them – and what doubles as being best for us all.


Jarvis DeBerry is deputy opinions editor at | The Times-Picayune. He can be reached at Follow him at