Breaking Free: Tips to Navigate the Prison System
While it appears on the surface that society as a whole looks down on prisoners and their families, they represent a significant portion of the population. More than 2 million people are held in American prisons, jails and correctional facilities. And behind each one of them stand mothers, fathers, siblings, children, spouses and friends. Christopher Zoukis provides tips to navigate the prison system to help those with a loved one in prison.
These are everyday people who are the unintended victims of the American criminal justice system, affected emotionally and even financially by the incarceration of their loved one. It’s a new system for them, and it’s often one they don’t understand. Prisoners can get moved without notice, they get put on lock down or have other rights violated and the loved ones can end up feeling just as helpless as the prisoners themselves.
Anyone who has ever tried to find information on the jail or prison where their loved one is located, or tried to track down their loved one after a move, knows how difficult this system can be. It’s one of the main reasons Christopher wrote the Federal Prison Handbook – so loved ones have the ability to not only better navigate the system themselves, but have a deeper understanding of what prisoners go through daily, so they can really provide the support prisoners need during incarceration, and when they get out.
Four Important Things to Know
Below are four things you may not have known about your loved one’s situation behind bars that can hopefully help you break free of your own prison, and better help your incarcerated loved one through their stint behind bars.
Your loved one won’t tell you what they are going throughWhen someone goes to jail or prison (especially the first time), it’s a heavy load to bear. They don’t know what to expect, so they’re understandably scared of the unknown. But rarely will they ever share how they really feel about this. It may be out of shame, or pride, or they just don’t want to put this burden on you. Regardless of the reasons they may have, most people who are going to prison actually appear very stoic about it in general. This can seem very confusing to outsiders, who usually want to reach out and talk about it. And it is a concern. In fact, most of the Admissions & Orientation handbooks (the booklets all prisoners get when they are first admitted that give them basic information about the facility) have a special section dealing with emotional assistance and even suicide, as it’s very common for newcomers to feel scared, overwhelmed, depressed and more. Reach out to your loved one, tell them how much you love them and how you will be there for them. Having a support system in place will truly make all the difference to their mental state throughout the term of their sentence.
The major things your loved one may deal with, aside from the loneliness of going to jail or prison, is avoiding fights with other inmates, understanding the prison system (from both the prisoner’s perspective and the system in general), and getting decent food. You can help by being an ear for them, and if you’re able to, sending them some money for commissary.
Be there for them
As a follow-up for point number one, actually be there for them. Now, of course when a prisoner first goes in, the calls and visits are frequent. But over time, they tend to fade out. It’s unfortunate but understandable – life does go on while the prisoner is away. Make an effort to be there for your loved one, even if it’s just to take a phone call once a week. Reaching out to others in society help the prisoners feel normal for a while, and give them something to look forward to, so try to keep that in mind as life gets busy. If you are able to visit, be sure to first check the prison’s visitation guide. There’s a chapter about this in the Federal Prison Handbook which can be a great reference for loved ones of federal prisoners. Jails, sheriff’s offices, federal prisons and private prisons will all have certain hours, guidelines and other rules for visiting, so be sure to go online, find the one your loved one is in and either search the site for visiting information or phone them directly before you go in. Lastly, prisoners can receive mail at most institutions, though local policies might dictate where items like books can be shipped from. Since prisoners don’t have access to the internet, this is a very common way of interacting with them. You can also find the mailing address online, as well as instructions for how to mail, as certain information is necessary for your mail to get past the guards.
Help keep them busy
Aside from visiting, phoning and mailing them, help keep your loved one busy by suggesting they pass their time doing something constructive, especially during longer stretches. All prisons are required to provide recreation for prisoners, at least some level of entertainment, religious services and education. Federal prisons in specific are required to provide literacy programming, English as a Second Language and GED programs. Encourage them to bide their time and their mind by involving themselves in one of these activities and supporting them throughout their journey. When I first went to prison I was bored out of my head. But a little school went a long way. This past January I earned my Bachelor’s Degree, and now I’m enrolled in graduate studies.
Know their rightsLastly, prisoners don’t have access to the internet and can only rely on the Law Library in their facility, or their loved ones for up to date information. If a situation comes up and you and your incarcerated loved one feel like it’s not right, do some research online or hire a prison consultant. Sometimes there are consultants who work in the prison, or you can hire them from outside too. For federal prisoners, the Federal Prison Handbook has a couple informative sections on this topic. Another useful resource is Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine and distributor of criminal justice, legal and self-help books. The site also includes a great list of links to criminal justice resources and organizations that can help. You can click here for links to Department of Corrections sites by state.
Christopher Zoukis, author of the Federal Prison Handbook and the Prison Education Guide, is a contributing writer to the Huffington Post, New York Daily News, NewsMAX, and Prison Legal News. He is currently incarcerated at the medium-security Federal Correction Institution Petersburg, Virginia, where he is a graduate student at Adams State University in their correspondence MBA program. He’s scheduled for release in 2018. More about Christopher and life in Federal Prison can be found at PrisonerResource.com.
Prison the Hidden Sentence commends Christopher on his accomplishments and wishes him much success in his endeavors with what he is accomplishing while incarcerated and what he will do and who he will help upon his release.
Editors Note: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of Christopher Zoukis and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Prison the Hidden Sentence, Inc. We welcome feedback from our readers to let us know what you found helpful. Feel free to share your story, too. The more information we can put out there and the more we can educate people, the more we can do for our loved ones.