Skip to content


The people we met described having to assume, manage and react to the new reality of their loved one’s imprisonment. The long list of difficulties and challenges that we have discussed in the previous sections have led family members to adopt strategies, which are simultaneously individual and collective, active and passive, voluntary and involuntary, successful and unsuccessful, favourable and damaging. 

We distinguish the strategies employed to improve the incarcerated person’s situation from those aimed at managing the security imperatives and constraints of the correctional environment. We then present the strategies aimed at reducing the impact of incarceration on participants’ lives and those which relate to managing their social interactions outside the institutions’ walls.

1. Strategies aiming to improve the situation of incarcerated loved ones

Even though participants invested themselves in various stages of their loved ones’ criminalization, we were able to identify a range of strategies developed at different phases in the judicial process. 

Some relatives attempted to assist the accused by becoming involved and by collaborating with police during their loved one’s arrest, the police search and the investigation.

We have no experience with the police. I have stories to tell others now. Don’t talk to the police. They are really, really nice to you. Really, really nice to you. And, of course, growing up as a good citizen, you trust the police. Well, I’ve learned not to trust the police anymore. I would never share anything with the police again because they turn it around and use it against you. We have really learned this lesson. – Erika, mother.

At first, when the police came to the house, they told me they would be there to question me and an officer came. And, being a very law-abiding citizen, you know, you think, “Okay, so, I’ll say it.” Yes, I greeted the officer. And, they questioned me, I think it was for almost three o’clock. They would ask me to explain to them the context and of course I would provide them with the context of the period when he was really ill. He was depressed and slept for days. So I gave them all the details of what he had done. How did he do. And, later, I found out that some of this material had been used against my son. – Felicity, mother.

Others became involved during the court process. They spoke to the judge and established a strategic reintegration plan to present at the hearing.

We made a second request so that he could be released. So, I put my file together and then we came up with this. The judge, uh the crown absolutely wouldn’t let him out. […] And at lunchtime, she took the time to look at my file and then, I passed her in the hallway. And then, I don’t know, I don’t know if, what happened, but she allowed him under very severe conditions though, but she allowed him a release. – Anne, mother.

So, what did I do? I made a Powerpoint presentation. And, you know, basically included different things in terms of Smart Recovery, his doctor, us. So, there was a plan and it was a multipronged plan. And, I think it blew them [the court] away. They weren’t expecting that, you know, we were willing to, to go to a little bit of effort here in terms of putting together a thoughtful plan with our son. – Dorothy, mother.

            At the time of incarceration, the people interviewed tried to improve the situation of the incarcerated person by giving their time, their energy and their money. The preceding sections have amply illustrated these strategies; however, beyond the visits and letters, the relatives we interviewed told us of the many efforts they had made to improve the daily lives of imprisoned people. Their goals were always for personal development through educational, playful and emotional strategies. They wished to occupy, educate, and entertain their incarcerated loved ones, but also help them to maintain contact with the outside world.

We started playing scrabble from a distance. I did a Scrabble board. I made little cutout letters that I put in an envelope. Then, there, I was picking up  letters. Then there I was making  up  words. Then there I was telling him: “Well, I put this letter in this specific space.” Then there I would pick up letters for him and I would send them back. Then he sent me a word back through the mail … uh, another mail after. Then we played Scrabble. (Laughs.) – Ariane, spouse.

C: Over the phone, what we did a lot was playing Battleship. Here we play Battleship, the girls have their game and daddy makes a grid with a pencil and paper. And then they’re playing Battleship over the phone. But, in prison, they don’t have the Battleship game. But over the phone, it’s a great game, it’s done well. N: At one point I sent him a drawing of Snakes and Ladders. So he could tell I’m here, I’m here. […] I had taken a picture of our game and sent it. C: Yeah and you see that the scale goes down from 15 to 8. Then, we could play that too. N: Yes, those are ideas that we had. […] the kids will read to him or get a joke book. […] They are going to read jokes to dad. So, he finds the jokes. – Normand and Claudette, parents.

Relatives’ attentive and creative efforts are not always fruitful. Their strategies are sometimes hampered by the correctional administration, which then generates other strategies that we present in the following section dedicated to managing the correctional system.

It’s been a little while since they played Battleship with Daddy because he didn’t have a pencil, he didn’t have room to write, the phone has nothing. It is not necessarily adapted for that. – Claudette, mother.

On September 13, I visited him. It was an open visit and it was at that maximum security level and after that I was not aware that when I got home, when he called later, he said, “I hate that they – I was strip-searched and it really humiliates me.” He used the word “humiliate.” They strip-searched him after he visited his family. So, you know, a person who is so vulnerable and so anxious and anxious and paranoid, when they are told to do a strip search. – It broke my heart and I just cried and said, “I’m not going to visit you. I’m not going to visit you. I can’t let that happen to you.” …. So I didn’t visit him. – Felicity, mother.

Relatives must often mobilize during their loved ones’ incarceration term, but also for the long-term, as planning for the future is often a concern. Some family members will play an important role during the parole process, particularly in offering material support (housing, for example).

I see all the obstacles he meets and I mean … […] When I saw that when he would get out he wouldn’t have a place to go, I bought myself a house, […] …] I gave myself a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders. – Joyce, mother.

We had the process before the parole commissioners. Then, uh, even I attended the meeting and then … I was his assistant. Then, uh, I had the right to speak. Then also now, every week, her worker, she calls me every week to find out if it went well, is he respecting his conditions? -Ariane, spouse.

Even if end-of-sentence support is not always officially included in the prisoner’s release plan, many participants explained that they have put various strategies in place to ensure their criminalized relative’s future well-being. Whether it is providing or financing housing, negotiating or creating jobs, finding support programs, or facilitating family and social relationships, participants mobilize themselves on various fronts. These fronts will also be addressed in the following section discussing strategies aimed at reducing the impact of incarceration on relatives’ daily lives.

When they [the judge and the lawyers] decided to release  him, he was coming to my house. […] But I said, but there he isn’t well, he needs to be stabilized. […] There, I asked them to release him from prison but that he goes to therapy, but directly, so he does not come by my house. Hey, he was with me for two months and I was this kind of … I was like a psychiatric hospital. He was in psychosis. – Maryse, mother.

So I fought tooth and nail and I found a higher education institution that was dispensing correspondence courses on paper because they were not allowed to use computers. And so, he was able to take a certificate program while he was there. – Erika, mother.

2. Correctional system management strategies

Faced with the difficulties that correctional procedures present, interviewees describe dealing with a lack of information, transparency and consistency in the correctional system. Above all, relatives in this study try to obtain clear and reliable information from correctional authorities.

C: Well, we have already been told, it’s not bigger than 5X7. Then, we were told that we could send the big pictures there. N: 8X10. C: 8X10. Then we said “can we talk to someone rank higher up to make sure because …N: No, oh that was crazy there. I call. It was at (federal penitentiary). “Can I know what are the photo sizes accepted.” She said to me, “Ah, 5X7”. I said, “8X10, can we send that, those are the school photos?” She said, “Yes, there shouldn’t be any problems.” I said, “No, no, I don’t want to know if there shouldn’t be any problems, ma’am, I want to be sure. What are your policies?” So, she said, “Wait a minute sir.” They transferred me somewhere else, someone was talking to me. C : That person ended up saying, “If it’s not a poster, it’s going to be okay.” Okay. N: Perfect, I’ll take your name ma’am. She said, “Wait a minute, I will go find out.” (laughs) No, no, but yeah, she’s there to answer, but when I say I’m going to take your name, “Well, I’ll go find out.” – Normand et Claudette, parents.

When relatives are confronted with a practice or policy that they feel is unjustified, they sometimes adopt proactive strategies to circumvent the limitations imposed by the institution. To bypass call limitations or their associated high fees, relatives will seek to obtain a local phone number or to forward the calls.

So, my house phone transfers calls to my cell phone, this one, mine over there, let’s say. So then, I was no longer missing his calls. And now, I added from where he is. Then, he can call me anytime. And there I found, well I don’t know if we can, but anyway, I won’t ask it, a three-way conference. So, let’s say he wants to talk to a friend. Instead of him calling, then costing him that much per minute, because his close friends are all allowed over there anyway. It’s just that it’s expensive. So he calls me, I’m calling his friend so the three of us are talking. Well, I put the phone over there and they both speak together. – Georgette, mother.

To get around the photo submission limitations, loved ones get creative.

I send him pictures so he can see what’s going on. […] I’m sending him pictures because the prison he’s in right now, he, they only let you have three pictures or something like that. Three photos. So instead, I write letters and put the photos in the Word document, right? And I print them. So he has the right to do that. – Kim, mother.

The strategies sometimes consist of adopting behaviours aimed at avoiding confrontations with the carceral institution.

I’m approximately the 5th person waiting to donate money or to register at the front. I am approximately the 5th person and there is a poor little lady who is there. She didn’t do anything, the lady. She’s just like me, us, we haven’t done anything. And then, she gives $100 for her son. Two men are there, plus the lady. The two men start to find this funny, “Well, we won’t even have enough to eat at McDonald’s together tonight. With that money.” So, I am at the back, and I’m beginning. “Hey guys, what you are doing is not right,” and then I start. Then, it wasn’t long until I had guardians coming close to me. So then I said, “It’s okay, I’ll calm down.” So then, I stopped doing… and, because I dared to say something, when it was my turn, I was bringing a watch to my boy, […] There, I arrive, I know that there are some with needles inside at the provincial level. I’m coming, and then the man, he said, well, from now on, it needs to be a digital watch. […] the man wanted me to piss me off. I said perfect, I didn’t persist … I was frustrated. I didn’t make a sound, because you, you always have to be polite, even if they piss you off. It’s how it works. Well, that’s an abuse of power. – Normand, father.

These avoidance strategies, which lead to relatives’ self-censorship, are particularly noticeable when relatives seek to avoid a positive result on the ion scanner.

But me, if I am positive when I enter the prison, they can take away my visits, […], You always have that risk. Because there, all of a sudden, I was almost paranoid. […] I have a wardrobe whenever I go to visit. It’s just to go for visits to make sure. […] It’s like, I had my car washed once a week (laughs). – Mary, spouse. 

I did not go today because I was afraid to test positive again. And before going in, the last time, we took all the clothes that we were going to wear and we washed them and put them in the dryer and we did that on Friday night. […] And then we got up in the morning and we took a shower. And then we went from the shower to the laundry and we wore the clothes from the dryer. We put nitro gloves on our hands when we got in the car, right? Just in case, you know, because you pass by the Tim Horton’s. You take something. There is, there is all this stuff – […] So we put on nitro gloves. We washed our jewelry. We washed our rings. We only took one piece of identification. Our driving license. […] We washed it. We washed our glasses. All of that. All of this to go see Jacob with a visit behind-closed-door, behind a glass plate. – Inès and Jeff, mother and father.

We were really careful. We never stopped on our way. We always put our money in a bag. – Erika, mother.

Conversely, relatives will sometimes adopt confrontational strategies with the institution and its staff, by means of humour or direct opposition. 

Then, there, she says to me … she says: “No, snacks are not allowed.” I say: “Come on, I’ve been coming twice a week for two months now, I have snacks all the time.” “No, these, we don’t want them in the … we don’t want them, snacks. It does damage. ” There I was, “Well, you pay an inmate to clean. I mean, it’s not even you guys who do it. What does that change for you?” “No, it’s not tolerated. She can have the milk and that’s it.” Also, no crayons (made of wax) for drawing. And then no … “She brings a lot of toys.” I said, “Well, yes, but, you know, for an hour in a small hole in the back of a row. I mean, I will for sure bring her some toys. – Patricia, spouse.

You know, they’re reading our mail. So, “Hello, sir …” You know, we wrote… stuff, to see if there was going to be… We said hello to people who were going to read our mail. It was really funny. We know how to play. – Ariane, spouse.

There was a guard at the institution X. The lady has arrived, a lady of a certain age, she is coming to see her husband, it had been in the newspaper, he had abused many children. The lady comes to visit him, she looks down. […] She shakes and she shakes and they search her and then, instead of being nice and being polite with her. There it begins…your underwear, she takes out her two small pairs of panties, “No no, show them,” then he makes her show her panties like this. Then, her bra, she takes out her bra, there is one on her back, all of a sudden, you show her like that you know, she shows him her other bra. Well, then he continues but, at that time at the B*, we were doing that in the entrance hall. Over there are all the guards coming in and out of their shift, it’s a shift change at that time of the day. All of the employees who were doing, at that time, they were building a hospital, all of the construction guys and you’re here showing off your underwear. There, the lady … listen, I wanted to hit the guard. A part of me, I will lose my visits, but now it’s nonsense. So I decided that I would get revenge. All of a sudden, the lady passed, I had arrived, and he started. He says, your bras, and I show them, “A white one, a black one,” and then, I start. But the x-ray guy, he’s laughing so much and he’s trying not to… at one point he says, “Your lube.” I take it out. He says, “I don’t understand why you bring lubricant, we have some here.” I say, “Well that’s because that one is good for anal.” There we are, he didn’t stay doing that for too long. Afterwards… Yes, I know, I have an incredible sense of humour sometimes. But, that, it was too much. (humour) – Mary, spouse.

Some react to these obstacles with strategies aimed at soliciting exceptions or changes from resource persons such as the Chaplin or the Superintendent.

So I write a letter. I write a letter to the director, to the superintendent, no matter how they are called, and it goes to the other one… You know, to the person, the assistant. And then the assistant calls you and you discuss with the assistant. And then they say they are informing themselves. They will call you back. And then you give them a few weeks to answer you back, because everything is slow inside an institution. And then they won’t call you back. So you call them and leave them messages to call you back. Then you tell them: “Should I ask all my friends to write letters so that my son can have reading material? You know, then they say: ” Well the chaplain is responsible for the reading and we have reading material over here.” – Diane, mother.

A few relatives adopt strategies of public denunciation when they call on the public, media, Members of Parliament, or Ministers.

N: All of his stuff got stolen. I had all the bills. So him, he, I made the complaint. I went to see the deputy, and then the deputy, eventually they said ok. C: He made a complaint. […] A refusal. A second level complaint, another refusal. And then we said ok, now we get on board. N: It’s me who pays at the end. Even if it’s for him, it’s me who pays. C: We went to see the deputy. The deputy called. And then we got the call, right? We got a call from a high-rank person in the prison. And then, well, they agreed to reimburse us a certain amount. – Normand and Claudette, parents.

Sometimes I am a bit of a claimant about the system. Sometimes I write open letters. […] I once wrote an open letter in the newspaper. […] I was saying who are you to judge. That was my theme. I find that all the media they’re making a big outcry about somebody who’s just been incarcerated and it’s like, they look like a bad person in front of everybody. Imagine the parents of these children, we are … we go with the … we are as poorly considered as them. I was saying that it’s a personal story, it’s mental illness, it’s life. – Maryse, mother.

Some participants even developed information and mutual aid strategies for other families of imprisoned people.

Once, I didn’t have the correct t-shirt. Once, I had a tank top with a jacket, I thought it was beautiful. I thought I was clean, well it didn’t pass. So there is a very nice lady who lent me a t-shirt. She had an extra t-shirt, she lent it to me. – Maryse, mother.

We also met relatives who created a support group.

Well that was really well. P and I, because of our experience, we said, “You know, there’s nothing out there. There’s nothing at all.” And, uh, we did it, we reunited with two others. A lady from the community and the John Howard Society, and we’ve created a support group. And we’re doing it now, we’re in our sixth year and we meet every Thursday. And we are doing outreach work to educate others, I’m sure you know that. And, uh, I think it was … to share our experience so … Because we’re ahead of most of them. Um, so they can learn from our experience. To redirect them, to help them find information. And I think it’s, I think it’s been the biggest help because by coming out of such an ugly time in my life, I can shed some light on a path that is so dark for other mothers. – Fanny, mother.

Others have contributed to an information and advice document for families.

C: We participated in the conception of a book. N: Of a small document. C: To help, to help people.  N: Uh, to give tricks, per example, since we live in region, but we are not in the F*CITY. So, what I did, I didn’t have a cell phone, so I bought a cell phone. It has a number from F*CITY. Like that, when he calls, it’s a local call. So, it costs him less per minute. In the end, I’m the one who saves, because I’m the one who pays for the calls. – Normand and Claudette, parents.

3. Strategies to mitigate the impact of incarceration on personal life

Facing the collateral consequences of a loved one’s incarceration, relatives must make numerous adjustments to minimize its negative effects and its impacts on their daily lives. Some relatives will reduce their visits to detention centres to minimize personal, financial and social costs.

I did not go today because I was afraid to test positive again. And before we went, the last time, we took all of the clothes we were going to wear and we washed them and put them in the dryer […]. And then we got up in the morning and took a shower. And then we went from the shower to the laundry room and put all of the clothes in the dryer. We put nitro gloves on our hands when we got in the car, right? Just in case, you know, because you pass by the Tim Horton’s. You take something. There are, there are all these things […]. We washed our jewelry. We washed our rings. We only took one piece of identification. Our driver’s license. We washed it. We washed our glasses. All this. All this to go see Jacob with a closed-door visit behind a glass plate. – Jeff, father.

Um, the first time I visited him as an adult, yeah it was pretty tough. Of course he’d been behind glass and um, and it was pretty tough to do, but I’d still go. I’d go every week and visit him. I did that a lot. So, the last couple of times that he went in, uh, I didn’t go visit him. I refused to. I told him, “I’m not visiting you in jail anymore. I can’t. I don’t care how long they keep you for.” – Ida, mother.

Conversely, others will increase their visits to the institutions to minimize their experience of distance and separation with their loved ones. In all cases, sacrifices are made based on what is feasible for relatives, including the personal and material resources at their disposal. These resources are at the heart of family members’ daily experiences and they will often determine the frequency and the type of contact that relatives are able to maintain with the incarcerated person.

The cost of phone calls often forces relatives to reorganize their budgets, reduce the length and frequency of calls, set unwanted boundaries with the detained person, or manage the logistics of making three-way calls.

Phew, fuck! (laughs). Suddenly, I said well ok, I explained it to him. When you call me during the day, you talk for half an hour, it costs 10$. When you call me during the evening, it costs 5$. Me, I’m ready to put 500$ per month of phone calls, all of a sudden, manage your budget. Because at some point, I can’t call you. And that too, is difficult. – Mary, spouse.

We don’t have a landline, so the phone is a problem. He can’t, he couldn’t call me at all from [the jail]. So to call my sister, thank God, she took all of his collect calls and told him he could call anytime he wanted. It was really good. – Dem, spouse.

Some places I found had FunGo numbers on the internet. You download the number of the place, like that when he has a calling card, it just costs you 0.50$ to call with your smartphone. Georgette, mother.

The cost and duration of transport to the place of detention also determine the frequency of visits. In many ways, incarceration represents a high cost in time, energy and money. To manage and limit the impact of incarceration on their lives, participants reorganize their daily lives, their schedules and their routines. Some even sometimes go so far as to reorganize their living environment, as their house is often adapted to this new situation.

He was at [A* Institution] at that time, a 3-hour drive. At that time, I was taking a class at [university] on Saturdays. I was going to see him on Fridays, I was coming back to [university], I was going to class, I was leaving on Sundays, I was going to see him. […] After that, I reorganized my work schedule to have two days. And Friday, Saturday, Sunday offs. I was leaving on Fridays, I rented an apartment in [A* city]. I had a house here and an apartment there.  – Mary, spouse.

Some move closer to the detention facility to facilitate their trips, others adapt their housing to better welcome the detained person at release or to remove themselves from this situation, which they deem to be too difficult.

In fact, the house, it’s not been that long, it’s been three years since I bought it. I was staying in an apartment in Montreal. I bought the house, a lot for him to have a room because I wanted to take him back at his release, and I wanted him to go to school, and I wanted to give him a chance to do something of his life. – Alexandra, mother.

When he stays at my place for a long time, it’s hell. So, I want to move out and I don’t want to give him my address, I don’t know if I’ll be successful. I want to have a place of my own, quiet, and he doesn’t know where I’m living. I’ll just give him my phone number. – Maryse, mother.

These adjustment strategies sometimes also concern professional careers. For some parents, this experience prompts them to take an anticipated retirement. Conversely, some will work more and for a greater number of years to save money and feel less stressed about the imprisoned person’s future.  

The health unit tried to put me aside, […] I was followed by a psychiatrist, adjustment disorder with an anxio-depressive mood due to major family stress. And when I was ready to return at the end of September […]. And then, the girl at the health office when she called me about it like a week before, she said no, we refuse, she tells me three times on the phone, “You know Mme Noémie*, you can retire too, eh” […]. At first, my retirement was planned for February 2019. I retired in August 2016. – Noémie, mother.

Some relatives will change jobs to have schedules that are more flexible and compatible with visits and calls.

I could never have gotten a job with everything I went through with him because of the number of times I went to court. Just going to see him. Just the mental – You know, it affected me. I’m on medication. I have anxiety. The thought of, you know, sometimes I just want to be held. And the thought of having to, you know, dress appropriately and go out socially everyday kind of terrifies me. So, you know, it’s affected my mental health. It’s, you know, I’m still coping. I’m self-employed, so I can, I can have some control over when I do what. So, if I have a court date, I can set it in advance […]. So, yeah, I couldn’t have been in a job where I had to be there all the time because I would have – Even if I could have done it mentally, I would have had to miss too many things, you know, with my son’s crisis. – Kim, mother.

Others set up a new career path and professional status to facilitate the detained person’s reintegration upon release.

I’m starting to work on boats. And that’s what we want to do, is build a boat company and “X” can have something to do.  – Jeff, father.

Parents in this study have described the need to anticipate the future consequences of their children’s incarceration. They reorganize their inheritance and try to put a plan in place for the future that allows them to be a little less stressed for their criminalized loved one.

I’ll send him money from time to time if I see that it’s for the right purpose. You know, that’s something, I have to think about my will too. I’d have to make a trust, I can’t give her money, $20,000 at once. Hey, I’m going to be dead. But hey, I’ll try to make sure he gets a little bit every month. Somebody manages that, that’s all kinds of stuff to think about. Because he’s going to go back to jail. – Maryse, mother.

Relatives sometimes have to adopt strategies that lead to distancing from the incarcerated person because they aim to minimize the impact of incarceration on their lives. Some will avoid or reduce visits to avoid being exposed to carceral treatment. Others will refuse to be the guarantor of the person upon release to avoid the role of at-home surveillant and the legal responsibilities attached to it.

So, my mom ended up, like, standing – And, it was, like, the hardest thing she’s ever done. She, like, stood in front of the judge and she’s, like, like, “I can’t.” Like, she’s, like, “I work. My husband works. We live in the middle of nowhere. […] So, she’s, like, “So, you’re saying that, like, one of us has to be home at all times just with him?” And, she’s, like, “I can’t, I can’t guarantee that we’re gonna do that and I can’t say that – Like, he’s already run away once and he clearly knows how to get money.” […] Like, my mom’s self-employed. My dad worked for – He worked throughout the time. He did, like, lawn care, like, meter reading. So, like, we don’t have, like, paid sick time. I was starting my career, so I didn’t either. So, she’s, like, “So, you’re asking one of us to take – It may sound stupid but you’re asking one of us to take, like, an unpaid leave to watch him.” – Ophelia, sister.

He goes back to jail and the lawyer starts calling for [me] to be his Surety again! I’m, like, “Are you on crack?” He attacked the lady upstairs from me. Like, I got subpoenaed to go to Court. I went to that Court. I’m not telling that – I’m doing everything so I won’t be the Surety. I’m doing everything. I’m doing – And, he’s laughing. He’s in the bullpen laughing at me, right, because I’m doing everything so I won’t be the Surety. I don’t want him back. Stop sending him back to me, you know? You’ve been doing this for 10, 12, 14 years. Stop sending him back to me. – Tammy, ex-spouse.

And, so, the last time, couple of times I’ve spoken to him on the phone he said, “Oh, I could be up for parole next year and live in a halfway house.” And, he said, “Oh, I’ll tell them to call you.” So, I thought – Like, part of me thinks, “I don’t want to be involved anymore.” And, you know, he’s not coming to live with me. Like, I haven’t told him yet, but I’m actually going to be moving. I’m going to be downsizing and moving. – Tara, mother.

The difficulties encountered during the experience of a loved one’s incarceration create a significant need for support that some meet by attending support groups or seeing therapists.

Some people have developed personal strategies to manage the emotions and stress they experience.

So uh, I don’t know, it was like, I put it in a drawer and I told myself, “I will think about this later.” […], One day per week, I would spend my day sleeping. I wouldn’t do anything. And you know, that normally doesn’t happen for me. But, one day per week, usually Thursday, I was so tired, I just took my little one to daycare and returned to sleep. And I would sleep all day. – Patricia, ex-spouse.

So the main thing was her room. It was a sanctuary. Everything that was left that day was the way it was. And it had to stay that way, because he was coming home. (crying) […]. So, I was sleeping in his room and then my husband ended up taking the mattress out of his room and he was like, “This is crazy. You can’t do that.” It was just that I could still smell it and I wanted to stay in his room until I lost his smell. And, uh, which may sound weird but not […]. That’s what we lived with. You know, two years anyway, like, […] and I got used to it. And, uh, eventually I put things away. I didn’t throw anything away, I just kept everything and put it away. I also told him that, you know, that I had done that and he said, “Mom, you should have done that from the beginning.” And I said, “I thought it would be fair to pack you up and leave you, you know?”   Fanny, mother.

4. Strategies for managing social interactions outside the walls

Faced with the difficulties encountered or anticipated in their various social circles, relatives also develop strategies for managing their daily social interactions, which often take the form of avoidance. This avoidance appears in the form of withdrawal from certain conversations, persons, places and communities.

I was very involved in my faith community here and I don’t know if that’s part of it, but I’ve really withdrawn. I haven’t attended church since September.  – Hannah, aunt.

We didn’t even go to the grocery store in the village anymore […]. We moved because of that, we couldn’t stay where we were. – Olivia, daughter.

Erika’s testimony illustrates how avoidance is a preventative strategy that relatives implement, even with generous friends.

The few friends I let in and everyone else walked by. I couldn’t cope. I couldn’t cope. I will never forget, I will never forget because a lot of people are nice. I have a lot of nice friends that I shut out and I couldn’t, I couldn’t handle it. I’ll never forget, it was a summer day and I had the garage door open because, I don’t know, I was cleaning or sweeping or something. And a friend that I hadn’t let into the circle stopped and came out and she had a gift basket for me. And I had a panic attack. I had never had a panic attack in my life. But just seeing her, I couldn’t, I couldn’t cope and I ran into the house. And she left it on the doorstep. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t say a word. And she was a good friend. I had known her for years. So it takes away your confidence, that kind of experience. It takes away your sense of identity, of who you are as a person. You blame yourself.  – Erika, mother.

Quite often, the family members we met explained that they limit their social interactions to avoid moral judgments about the incarcerated person and themselves. They will generally not talk about this aspect of their lives with new acquaintances and avoid the subject with those who already know.

 If I meet a new person, they don’t know I have a son. – Kim, mother.

But, like, you know, at school, I don’t… I don’t tell my teachers now. Forget about it. – Patricia, spouse.

Kalinda, whose spouse is incarcerated, explains precisely how having an incarcerated loved one influences her ways of being and acting in all of her relationships. With the exception of a few individuals who are close to her, she explains that she hides this part of her reality from the rest of the world, which greatly affects the nature of her social interactions.

My best friend, she knows it. Well, I have two friends […]. The two of them know it and then, well, of everyone we know in common who comes from my country. That’s all. Not my job, not the school either when I was in school. That’s a lot of barriers. Even, you know, as a colleague, you can’t develop relationships because you’re careful what you say. You know, when he calls, everybody can hear what it says. Because, you have some kind of resistance. Because it’s hard at that time to connect with people. Because, you end up just having “basic” relationships. But you can never go deep. It’s stupid, but that’s part of the loss now.  – Kalinda, spouse.

Most, if not all, participants use similar strategies to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their relationships with others. Erika’s detailed testimony illustrates the stigma she experienced and wished to prevent through these avoidance strategies, which she felt were essential to her healing process.

I can’t imagine too many people would do it, who would do it, who would share it openly because the stigma is incredible. The shame, not only of the person who came into conflict with the law, but the shame sticks to everyone in the family like glue and we all have to have played a part in his bad decision making. We all must have played a part in that. It sticks to you like glue. (about her other children) None of them have stable relationships. There weren’t many times when I thought, “Oh, my God. How do we introduce this to future in-laws?” You know, “How do we even present this to future in-laws?” I don’t know. Thank goodness none of them are in stable relationships! So, we’ve all been judged. Absolutely all of us judged. And so, how did I deal with that? I changed jobs….and that helped me tremendously. Nobody knew me there, right? It helped me tremendously and, of course, over time, you know, you start to heal. Everybody starts to heal. I told our whole family that they started to heal from it. But there are always scars, right? There are always scars. And I also have to say that in my new job, you know, everybody has pictures of their kids on their desk, right? Others would talk about what they did with their kids. What they did, you know, blah, blah, blah. I never do that. I would say I keep my personal life very private. Very, very private. And you know, people say to me, “Oh, you know, come and have a drink with us after work or whatever,” and I say, “Oh, you know, I’m a very busy person. I’m very, very busy, like outside of work. So I don’t hang out with the staff, you know? And I tend to work in my office and, you know, do what I need to do and I keep my work life well separated from my personal life. And that’s how I manage now. I would say that’s worked pretty well for me over the last six years, I guess. You know? Six, seven years, so it’s worked out pretty well for me since I switched jobs. – Erika, mother.

She explains, however, that her husband adopts a different compartmentalization strategy. He practices avoidance of the painful topic of conversation without imposing social isolation on himself. He attributes this difference in strategy to the types of social interactions that are unique to the male gender.

I told my husband about it and said, “If there was a support group for men, would you have gone?” He said no. He said, “I’m shutting it down. It’s one part of my life and I have all these other parts of my life.” Whereas with me, it encompassed me. I think women carry their grief differently than men and I said, “Is that just you or would you say you can generalize like most of your friends?” And [my husband] said, “Yes, let me give you an example.” He said, “When you go to lunch with your friends, what do you talk about?” I said, “Well, we talk about our kids. We talk about our jobs. We talk about our families and our parents and things like that.” I said, “What do you talk about?” He said, “Sports.” He said, “We never talk about our families. Maybe we talk about work a little bit,” he said, “We talk about sports and we talk about stupid stuff.” He said, “We don’t talk about family.”  – Erika, mother.

While avoidance seems to be a preferred strategy, some of the people we met told us that they adopted the opposite strategy. Participants sometimes demonstrate a proactive attitude in disclosing the information.

I started working. I called the executive director immediately and, uh, she wasn’t there. So I emailed her and said when she got here, she called me and said, “I’ve already discussed it with the president and with the board. I did it on Friday.” She told me that at the time Brian was arrested, she had called the Chairman of the Board and I said, “Well, I’m afraid the press is out there trying to find out things.” Anyway, we agreed on an email that she sent me and said, “What do you think about this?” And I thought it was good. I changed a few things. And we sent it out to the whole agency. Everybody knew right away.  – Diane, mother.

My network that I have right now I have friends (silence). They know everything, they know everything, everything, everything. I wrote it even on Facebook… I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid of the judgment anymore. My employer knows it. I’m not afraid of it anymore. – Maude, spouse.

But there are even clients who knew about it and I never hid the fact that I was married with a guy inside. That was never hidden. Everyone knows it, or what I’m working on, or what I already have, everyone knows it. – Mary, spouse.