Ten years ago, my life imploded.
I was 25 years old, and I was in the middle of some pretty great things. I had just started my first full-time job after graduating with a master’s degree. I was engaged to a terrific guy. We were looking at houses and planning our wedding. We were volunteers in our church and had a large group of family and friends. Life seemed pretty sweet.
Then my dad was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a white-collar crime.
It’s been 10 years, but even now, writing that sentence hurts. The edges of my pain have been softened, but the ache is still there. My dad missed my wedding. He missed the births of my three children. Every holiday, every birthday, I’m reminded of the fact that he’s not there. I miss him terribly.
I wish my story was unique, but incarceration rates are staggeringly high. According to the Department of Justice, one in every 115 adults in America was in prison or jail in 2015. But prison doesn’t just affect those who are behind bars. It is devastating for the friends and families left behind.
Many families lose their primary breadwinner, which was the case in our family. Assets can be seized. Going through the court system can be crushing financially. The monetary cost is high, but it’s not the worst part.
It’s the shame.
Shame surrounded our family like a wall, and no one was trying very hard to get in. In the days and weeks after my father went to prison, lifelong friends suddenly disappeared. Family members cut off contact. I stopped going to church, and no one asked about me. I was so embarrassed and worried about what people would think of me. Could I lose my job? What if my neighbors found out? I wondered how God could have let this happen.
I felt alone and abandoned, struggling with grief.
But this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Do you know who else struggled with loved ones going to prison? The people in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Joseph was jailed unfairly. Samson was imprisoned. Many of the prophets and disciples spent time in prison. Paul even wrote some of the New Testament sitting in a prison cell. Much like our modern times, prison was a very real problem for people in biblical times. And Jesus had some clear words about it in the book of Matthew.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
So what can you do when a friend is dealing with a family member in prison? Our modern prison system can make visiting an inmate difficult. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to support those going through the justice system.
Acknowledge the hurt
I know I had friends who wanted to say something but didn’t have the words. You don’t have to say something profound to someone hurting. You don’t have to talk about the court case or make excuses for something their loved one did. But please let your friend know that you see them, even if it’s a simple, “I’m so sorry this is happening. I’m here for you.”
Bring them food
Going through the court system is expensive and exhausting. One friend had us over for a cookout. I have no idea if the food was any good, but I’ll never forget their generosity and kindness. Don’t hesitate to bring over a casserole or a gift card.
Don’t forget holidays
Just like any loss, the holidays can be tough. For me, Father’s Day always guts me. Reach out on birthdays, anniversaries, or special days. Even a text can go a long way.
Don’t know anyone in prison, but still want to help? Crossroads has teamed up with The Four-Seven Ministries to serve those who are incarcerated. Find out more here and sign up to serve.