Home Coming: Returning Citizens & the Impact of Incarceration

“After years of waiting and counting down, it is almost time for the gates on the Iron House to open and your loved one to step through and come home. Your greatest dream and your worse nightmare are about to be realized…yes, it is your loved one and no, you don’t know this person anymore. Is there hope that all can be healed and your loved one becomes once again the person you knew and loved? The answer is a resounding yes, but it will take honesty, patience and work by all.

The experts say that it only takes 18 months for a person to be institutionalized. I would say that the experts are being optimistic and that any amount of time locked up leaves wounds that must be healed and behaviors unlearned. You must understand the nature of the enemy – the Iron House – in order to understand the damage done to your loved one. The prison system, regardless of where located, systematically, intentionally and scientifically makes every effort to dehumanize a person in order to better control and “manage” the prison population.

Immediately upon entering the prison system, activities are undertaken to strip away a person’s identity, decision-making capabilities, and self-esteem. Their names are taken away to be replaced with a number. Their sense of “Who I Am” is replaced with “What I Am.” All opportunities to make a choice are removed. They are consistently told and retold what little worth they have to humanity. They are punished for showing any emotion, questioning any decision, or stepping outside of the accepted standard. Complete and utter compliance and conformity are demanded. Individualism is punished swiftly and severely. And it never changes. Colors are bland, meals are bland, activities are bland, and days and night fold into each other. Time slows and stops, as does growth and life for the inmate.

In order to survive such an environment, your loved must have been flexible enough to adapt and once adapted, it has become his/her life. It is life, alien and warped, but it is their life. And now comes the time for the inmate to come home, a world that has now become alien and unfamiliar and more importantly, terrifying. This is a time that will require more strength from the inmate than going into prison. But this time your loved one is not alone, you are there to help the healing process and to encourage the growth. Your loved one has been deeply wounded, but can heal. Yes, there will always be scars, but one can live with scars as only distant reminders of bad times. So here are a few things to be aware of and several things you can do. You and your loved one are no longer helpless. Take your power back and use it!

First, recognize that he is coming from a place where he has had to be constantly alert and attentive, a place that is never quiet, a place he is never alone in peace, and that quiet is foreign to him. He will need periods of quiet time in short intervals. And he will not be comfortable with loud noises that he is not accustomed to, such as the babble of party noises, street noises and the like. He will be uncomfortable around a variety of colors, genders, children and animals. He will at first be uncomfortable moving from room to room, and will tend to stay in one room until it has become familiar. He will be uncomfortable going out the door ahead of anyone else. His eyes will always be shifting around and his heading turning, and he will probably wish to sit with his back to a wall. These are instinctual things he has learned and he won’t even be conscious of it. The best cure is simply time, to replace his instincts with new ones and to help him be aware of his actions, without trying to correct the actions. Pay attention to his comfort level and help make his new environment comfortable, introducing new things slowly.

The worse damage done to your loved one is his ability to make decisions or choices was taken away. It has to be relearned. We unconsciously make hundreds of decisions a day. Your loved one is not allowed any and has forgotten how to make them. He was not even allowed to choose what he would wear for the day, or if had the choice, it was extremely limited. Do not overwhelm him with choice.

The key to helping is staying supportive, but not smothering. He has to learn to make decisions and to choose in order to survive and grow in the new world, but he doesn’t have to learn it overnight. Think in terms of small and slow steps. Let him set the pace, and be there for him if he demands too much of himself. He will want it all…the sensations he lost, the colors he lost, the sounds, the feels, the music. He can have it all, but in smaller doses. Wide-open spaces will scare him at first. Start with just watching a sunset to draw his attention up and out. A short walk in the neighborhood or light picnic in his own backyard. When you see he is comfortable, then expand to something a bit larger, a bit longer.

Don’t ask him what he wants you to cook for dinner. Ask him if there’s anything in particular that he would like, that he’s been craving. Don’t be surprised if some of his old favorites have changed and he no longer likes macaroni and cheese or turkey or meat loaf or pancakes. Those are prison staples and he is sick of them, even if your “home-cooked” was special. Again, give him small choices to make…do you want corn or green beans?

He will want to do those things that have been denied him all those years, social functions, entertainment, etc. Help him to realize the dream, but be cautious in how you do it. Do not take him to a movie the first weeks home. Dark, enclosed places, where he is surrounded by people will cause those flight/fight instincts to kick in. Rent a video instead. Do not take him to car races…try watching it on TV first to let him get accustomed to the noise. Do not take him to a restaurant for a full meal…start by going into a smaller, comfortable, familiar place and order just dessert or a beverage. Menus are really intimidating and ordering dinner is overwhelming…soup or salad, what kind of soup or what dressing on the salad, what kind of potato..mashed, baked, fried or rice, rolls or toast, what to drink with dinner.

Don’t ever come up behind him quietly and put your arms around him for a quick hug, or tap on his shoulder. The flight/fight instinct will immediately kick in.

Make a little noise before entering a room he’s in or call out to him. Encourage him to come into another room by inviting him in with you.

Do not take him shopping unless he asks to go. Under no circumstances, take him into a shopping mall the first few weeks home. Start out with small convenience stores or grocery stores. Don’t ask him what he wants, ask him what brand of something he was using or liked. If you put him in front of a two dozen brands of toothpaste, he’ll freeze. Watch him closely at shopping expeditions. If he begins to sweat or starts looking around more and more, pull him out of the store…he’s on overload.

Encourage his participation in household decisions by asking his opinion, but do not pressure him to make the decision. I know that you have longed to have the burden shared and it can be, but first he must learn to trust his decision-making skills and feel comfortable with airing his opinion. It’s been a long time since he was asked and a long time since he was trusted.

Prepare for him coming home by having a new wardrobe ready for him, preferably colors he wasn’t allowed to wear. But keep the wardrobe small, six or seven shirts at most. He won’t be able to decide what to wear if he is overwhelmed with too much choice. Help him with the choice by mentioning that you particularly like a shirt or that he looks good in jeans, or you will be going someplace that tennis shoes might be comfortable. Don’t tell him what to wear, but give hints or encouragement that will help.

Even though out of prison, there is still a long string tying him to prison…fines owed, parole officers to check in with, boxes on forms that ask if he ever committed a felony. The reality is that he is forever marked by being a prisoner and both you and he must accept that reality. Reduce the stress levels of the string by reducing the situation to an annoyance rather than an obstacle. Acknowledge that it is annoying, but then so is paying taxes, getting a driver’s license, showing ID to cash a check. Reinforce the idea that it is simply a task to be done and has little importance in day-to-day life.

Help your loved one to redefine himself. He has lost “Who I Am,” and must now start over and this time carrying a backpack full of shame, guilt, pain, anger and confusion. Don’t remind him of who or what he used to be, but encourage him to look for what he wants to be. Let him know there are no limits to what he can be.

Expect periods of silence from him when he has nothing to say. Expect periods when he won’t shut up and you want to scream because you are tired of the prison stories. Expect evasions and direct lies because they have become a necessary part of his living system. Expect and understand where these things are coming from, but do not change your life to accommodate these things. When he is silent, respect his silence but do not retreat into it also. When he won’t stop talking about prison, understand he is feeling particularly lost and redirect his thoughts to here and now. Call him on the lies and let him know there is no reason to lie. Remember, however, that he is used to instant and harsh punishment and will expect the same from you.

Human touch was one of the first things taken away from him. His only experience with human touch during his imprisonment has been in a negative way or fleeting moments during visits. He will crave touch and be repelled by it at the same time. Watch for his comfort level and adjust to it and help him to expand. Never touch him when he is unaware of your presence. Do not sacrifice yourself and your needs to accommodate him. It will only add to the burden of guilt he is feeling. Let him know that even though the transition is home is tough, you are working on it together, and that you expect him to be a partner in the work. Guide, do not nag. Make opportunities for him to be a partner, and then sit back and allow him to do it…even if you want to take it out of his hands and do it yourself.

Be honest, be patient, be loving and most importantly, be human. Do not try to be perfect, do not try to be strong all the time. He needs to be needed. He needs to give love as well as receive it. He needs to know he is of value to you and the creation. He needs to relearn pride and faith. He needs to be judged on his actions now and the past become a whisper of memory.

Help him to find his spirituality. Help him to see the world beyond himself and his place in the world through his spirituality.

Be the living example by which he can learn. Show compassion, honor, trust, respect and fairness. These are qualities that he has not seen for a very long time and they cannot be described in words. By your example, show him the way home.

Final Thoughts:
Each situation, each human is different. But there is one truth for all. Your loved one has been wounded by the horror of being locked up. What must take place is a healing, not just for him but for you also. It will happen. It takes time, love and absolute faith, but it does happen. I urge you to be aware of what he has been through and where he has been, but not to allow your home to become a prison also. Help him to clean the prison out of him and replace that empty void with home. Do not allow the prison to run your lives any longer by letting him and yourself stay imprisoned within your heart and minds. In order to be free, you both must feel free. Remind yourselves constantly that you are free!

I speak from the voice of experience. I married a prisoner. After 25 years my husband was released from prison .

During our celebration, we talked about the insanity of the first few months home, we talked of the love that had grown and strengthened through the years and the most exciting part was that we talked about the mundane, routine parts of life and made plans for the future .

All that I had hoped for and wished for has come to be. My husband is truly home and we are stronger and more united for the experience. We truly value love, companionship, partnership and each other. We do not take for granted the small precious moments of life. The healing is well underway for us both. Keep your faith and your hope….it will be a good day, and a good life.”
Credit: Joanne Walsh

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