What can I do for a family member going to prison soon?
November 14, 2012 11:50 AM   Subscribe

My brother is going to prison in December, possibly for a decade or more. What can I do for him, both emotionally and practically?

My brother is awaiting sentencing for a drug-related crime and has been for most of the year. He is depressed, listless, and distant and has been since his arrest, but as far as I can tell he is trying to keep a good attitude day-to-day. He is currently halfway across the country from me in our small hometown staying at our dad's house, with our mom living a few minutes away. Our parents are both there for him emotionally and trying to be supportive of him, but he has a history of being emotionally distant and immature - partially due to his previous physical distance from all of us for a decade, his drug-based leisurely lifestyle, as well as several minor-to-serious drug addictions.

He and I haven't been close in almost 15 years, but we do care for each other and I've occasionally been able to get him to open up when we talk on the phone the past few months. However, even during the good times he has been difficult to get ahold of by phone/text/email/etc and if he returns messages it usually takes several days. My parents both think that I'm able to (or, hypothetically, would be able to) get through to him better than they can, but I am someone who has always struggled with communication, especially when it comes to emotional communication. I've been trying to talk and engage with him, but it's very frustrating and as I've said, it isn't my forte. It's additionally difficult to me because he (and I) seems to be avoiding preparing for the inevitable practicalities of the situation. I'm visiting him for a little under two weeks directly before his sentencing.

So my question is this: what does he need that I can provide, both emotionally and practically? Both before he is sentenced and after.

This includes how I can communicate with him and help him through this very sad time, but also how I can best equip him for life in prison, what I can make for him or give to him, etc.

Once he is in I plan to send him books, write him letters, send him phone cards/money, and send him photographs and snippets of my life, but outside of that I don't know what to do. And on a more minor note, it's his birthday right before he goes in and Christmas right after, so I'd like to give him something special he can take in with him or I can send him, but don't know what that would be.
posted by gregoryg to Human Relations (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
When/if you get a hold of him, maybe ask him what you can do to help him out now. Asking him may not get you much in the way of response, but he could say exactly what he needs from you. It might be that he needs space, maybe needs you to converse with him as though none of this was happening, maybe he needs someone to talk to candidly about how he is feeling about all of this, maybe he needs a gym membership for a couple months so that he can exercise and work out some of his frustrations that way.

See if he tells you what he needs. That is where I would start.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

What state? Or is he doing federal time? Check your memail.
posted by mareli at 12:11 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Google and join Prisontalk. Lots of information.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:12 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

What is it your parents are expecting you to "get through to him" about? I mean, it sounds like he's depressed about going to prison, which is fair enough, and that his avoidant personality is continuing to avoid dealing with planning for that, which seems usual for him. It is unlikely he's going to make substantial changes in the days before sentencing, right?

What you can send him in prison will depend on where he ends up - there are a LOT of rules about book sizes and content and packaging, etc, so unfortunately I don't think you can really make exact plans right now but the folks at Prisontalk might be able to advise. You might focus on giving him an experience present before he goes in, like a day at an amusement park or Vegas or fishing or something?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:14 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You might not want to send anything in with him, other than a small family photo. Don't overwhelm him with stuff - he can also get in trouble for too much stuff - too many books, photos, etc.

Put a tickler reminder to yourself to send off a missive on a regular schedule.

Good luck.
posted by tilde at 12:14 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of situations when, if you reach out to people and they shut you out, then you should maybe take that as your lead and assume that they don't want you to talk to them. Unless your brother is different than all the people (not many but some) I've known in similar situations, this is not one of those times. Please keep reaching out to him while you can.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:21 PM on November 14, 2012

Seconding PrisonTalk as a great resource. The Osborne Association does trainings and workshops for the families of people in prison.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:24 PM on November 14, 2012

Response by poster: Just to clarify, this is Federal prison. Thanks for the answers so far, guys.
posted by gregoryg at 12:35 PM on November 14, 2012

Best answer: As someone who represents clients in your brother's position, it helps to have letters of support from the family for the judge to consider at sentencing. If you have not already inquired, you might see if that would be helpful. Some clients are too depressed or too deep in denial to reach out to family members, but such letters frequently help the sentencing judge see the person behind the presentence report and the offense. Also, it would be a way of communicating in writing your positive thoughts about your brother if speaking to him directly is not your comfort zone. Getting something to the judge a few weeks before sentencing is normally not too late.

Figuring out how to add money to his commissary account or what programs the facility where he will be has available are good ways of supporting him without having to have an emotional conversation. Being familiar with how to send him books (usually directly from the bookseller) or what you need to get the family on his call list are also helpful. Those guidelines are available by facility on the Bureau of Prisons website. If his attorney is helpful, you can ask him or her as well what you might do on the practical end.

I'm sorry you are going through this.
posted by *s at 12:51 PM on November 14, 2012 [10 favorites]

My brother has been institutionalized (jail, group homes) his adult life. I'd say, as others have, keep reaching out. My brother are separated by a lot of things other than his institutionalization (geography, life experiences, weird family shit) but I just call him once a week and we talk about whatever. I've neglected contacting him before, and I feel like a major shit about that, but for the most part we talk and once in a while I tell him I love him. Sometimes, it's just what you can do, you know?
posted by angrycat at 12:59 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

When my friend's brother was in prison, she wrote him frequent letters and I think that helped with the loneliness and isolation.
posted by bananafish at 1:25 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Related: I got a lot of great answers in this thread about sending postcards to my brother in a similar situation.
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:52 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This may sound odd and may not be financially feasible but beyond what has already been mentioned, get him in for as much medical care as possible. Medical doctor to make sure he is as healthy as he can be including an vaccinations (including hepatitis, whatever you can). See if you can get him to the dentist for a cleaning & any other dental care that is required now, optometrist in case he wears glasses etc. The medical care is prison is atrocious and anything you can do ahead of time will help.
posted by googlebombed at 2:24 PM on November 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Reach out and let him know that you'll always be there for him.

Encourage him to take advantage of any programs available to him in prision, job training, education, addiction counseling, reading all the great books, whatever.

Prision is going to suck in ways I can't wrap my head around, and neither can you.

At the end of the day though, you don't get Federal Prision time for having a joint on you, so we all know that whatever he did, it's pretty heavy. No one in your family put him in prison, he did that on his own. You seem to feel slightly guilty about something, but none of this is on you.

Be supportive, be in contact, give him a bit of money and accept his collect calls.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:30 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe consider hiring a prison consultant?
posted by amoeba at 3:39 PM on November 14, 2012

Best answer: My cousin was in jail for about six months, and during that time my mother wrote him letters constantly. One week she did so daily. The letters were basically about nothing, with as much detail as she could give; when she got up, what she had for breakfast, what traffic was like on the way to the gym, what songs played on the radio, what she had for lunch, what she watched on TV, just narrating her day.

When he got out, he had every one of her letters. He had read them all multiple times. He is not a real out-reaching kind of person, but he thanked her effusively for writing so much. I would say the answer is "write him as often as possible even if you think you have nothing to say."
posted by KathrynT at 4:39 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was married to a man who was in prison and 6 years of our married life was spent while he was doing time.

This is what helped: Write letters on a regular basis about what is going on in your life, the outside world, just little day to day stuff. It will help your brother feel less disconnected from the rest of the world.

Making sure he has a nice Christmas box at the holiday is always very nice, but as another poster mentioned, you must be very careful about checking the current Bureau of Prisons regulations for what is allowed and who the current provider is.

Phone calls are great, but beware, the prison system profits from the phone system contracts that are currently in place.

Finally, check into any programs that are available at the prison where he is doing time. My husband was able to connect up with a group that taught meditation and yoga during his time in prison and it has changed his life. You are a blessing to your brother!
posted by furtheryet at 6:38 PM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I have no experience with prison, but this might be useful anyway...

I was a foreign exchange student before the age of the internet. Moving overseas for a year meant total separation from everything I knew. While I was away, I met another exchange student whose family did the neatest thing for him. Every day, they clipped Calvin & Hobbes from the newspaper and, at the end of each week, they sent them to him. It's amazing how something as simple as that gave him strength to get through a very difficult year.

Obviously, your brother is in for a much harder experience over a much greater period. But having something consistent to look forward to could really REALLY help.

I should note that my friend, the other exchange student, wasn't THAT much of a Calvin & Hobbes fan. It didn't matter. That wasn't the point. The point was just a little piece of home on a very predictable basis. It was something to look forward to.
posted by 2oh1 at 3:30 PM on November 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, there's some great advice here. I suppose this just comes from a place of feeling helpless in more than one way. I know my perspective on all of this will change once he goes in and we work out what exactly his wants and needs are there, but I just want to make sure I can help him as much as possible before then. My mother had already sent around an email to everyone about sending letters of support, but I didn't realize how vital it was until *s's post, so thank you for that, I'm already on my second draft.

And thanks 2oh1, that definitely makes me think about that sort of thing. I'll try to expand out for him if he wants and get his Facebook password and send him print-outs of that, sports scores, news headlines, etc. Definitely something to keep in mind.
posted by gregoryg at 12:53 AM on November 18, 2012

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