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1. Impacts on family and social ties

Participants speak about the ways in which their loved ones’ incarceration impacts their social universe – their relationships with their relatives in custody as well as their nuclear family relationships and social circles.

A. Felt and imposed restrictions on relative’s relationships with detained individuals

As we have explained, incarceration poses objective and material restrictions, which limit the means, frequency and context of family members’ relationships with the incarcerated individual. These restrictions define relatives’ ways of living with and relating to their loved one(s) in custody. The majority of participants discussed the difficulties they experienced as a result of the correctional policies which prohibit physical contact between inmates and their visitors for longer or shorter periods of time depending on the institution and initial security level of incarceration.

I mean, the thing that’s really hard in the beginning and that I heard from other parents over and over and, I mean, it was four years before I could hug my son. – Diane, mother.

I haven’t been able to hug him since September last year. – Tara, mother.

And, you know, really what you want to do is you want to hug your loved one, right? You really do want to hug them and no, it’s over the telephone and with glass between you. So, it’s very, very hard. Very hard. Very inhuman. – Erika, mother.

Carceral procedures have structural and structuring effects on family interactions, limiting not only their quantity but also their quality and expression.

You can’t give gifts. You can’t, you can’t, sorry, you can’t send them a birthday present. I can’t send money on his birthday, right? I can’t send him a gift. I can’t send, I can’t give chocolates to the staff because God knows, they’ll think they’re poisoned or worse or something like that. I mean, you cannot do anything. So, it, it, it takes away this sort of humanness. – Diane, mother.

Nathan’s testimony illustrates how the prison’s structure affects, changes and controls family relationships:

But then seeing my dad behind this glass and I remember him, like, putting his hand up again the glass and I put my hand up against the glass and, um, you know, that was my first time going to the prison. And, uh, it was a very scary experience and it was very heart-breaking to see my father there. […] Prison structure is all over your interactions in very particular sorts of ways. Where you can sit. How you can sit. How close you can get. When you can hug when you can’t hug. You know? Or if you think about that experience where I put my hand up against the Plexiglas, the prison is literally mediating the physical contact that I can have with my father, you know? – Nathan, son.

The available means of contact, combined with their costs and consequences, force family members to self-censor the form and content of their communications with their incarcerated loved ones.

It’s the structure of the visits, well because I do not know if you have ever been to a detention center, but when you are behind the small picture windows, we are so closed to one another, I’m sorry, but even on the phone, I couldn’t do it . I had a hard time concentrating and hearing what my son was saying to me. It feels like we’re screaming all the time or everyone is screaming, or I don’t even know. So it’s super uncomfortable, we can’t talk about just anything […] Basically, we’re talking about the rain and the good weather. […] It’s very impersonal. Me, I don’t feel like it’s designed to be pleasant for our inmates, absolutely not. And the phone calls, they were fine. It costs an [arm and a leg], it costs a fortune. He calls us all the time by collected fees. So, needless to say that me and a lot of other moms and dads have really big bills until we get the first bill and then we are like, okay. There, I think we’ll talk to each other. I understand that they want to call us, but at the same time […] it just makes no sense. […] Of course everything is recorded on the phone, so for sure… Well, I’m not telling you that I didn’t yell at him. But still. – Zora, mother.

You know, sometimes he phones and just has to vent and guess what? I’m the, I’m the punching bag, right? And he’ll get angry and he’ll get frustrated and he’d yell and stuff like this.[…] You can’t hang up on someone, especially when they’re not doing that well, with depression and stuff. But the phone call is their only link to the outside […] – It does upset me sometimes but I’m fairly certain it’s not just me. That he needs this outlet. So, you know, I try not to take it to heart. – Kim, mother.

For some participants, the institutionally-imposed and self-imposed restrictions compound to become a very heavy burden. This often results in family members’ ambivalence regarding possible interactions with their incarcerated loved ones. Family members may then become reluctant to expose themselves to the prison or jail and to consequently reduce their contact with the incarcerated persons.

I broke up with him like 3 months after the strip-search, it might have been that I had an overflow and that I just needed to leave and that it was my way of saying: “uh, I need to breathe.” But that I was not able to say it that way [..] at one point I said to him “I cheated on you and I’m leaving”. Because the whole time I was on the bus, I was thinking about how to tell him that I needed to leave because I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to tell him that it was coming from his environment [the prison]. – Maude, spouse.

This degenerative effect on family relationships is often reported when participants discuss the ion scanner[14]. Some relatives limit their visits to the institution fearing they could test positive on the ion scan, as it would have consequences for them and their incarcerated relative. In such cases, carceral policies not only impede the maintenance and expression of family relationships, but also undermine the support provided to detainees.

The ion scanner is meant to keep families out. And you know what? It’s working really well. And that’s a shame. – Inès, mother.

B. Nuclear family

The nuclear family, which includes parents and their children, is truly affected by the incarceration of one of its members.

One thing I would tell you is that when your loved one is doing time, you’re doing time too. We counted every single day. We counted how many weekends there were. We were doing time, too. Everybody’s in a holding pattern and it’s really tough on the family. – Erika, mother.

A loved one’s incarceration often results in generalized tension, which sometimes leads to relationship fragility and arguments between partners.

To say we were brittle with each other would be very, very an understatement. Yeah, we were, we were made of glass and we were walking on eggs. And we would fight at the drop of a hat and argue about things that we’ve never argued before. And it finally calmed down and we’re a lot better now but it was very hard. -Jeff, father.

Family members who reject the incarcerated individual create additional tension within the family unit and may distance themselves from those members who choose to maintain relationships with their incarcerated relatives.

I couldn’t talk to my mom either because my mom really didn’t have the same vision. And that’s normal. And me and my mother never had that conversation and we’ll never have it. Because we don’t see it the same way. And that’s normal. You know, I mean, he is my father; she’s his ex. We don’t have the same perspective. We don’t have the same perspective of the story as he does either […]. We just put it straight one day. We wanted to talk about it once. We felt that, there, … we were raising our voices because, there, we started to, to have disagreements. Then we just went like, “What’s for dinner?” Well, like… it kind of stopped right there because we were like, “Okay, we just realized that we’re never going to have the same conversation about this. Then it’s okay.” – Olivia, daughter.

I have a sister in law that never wants to have anything to do ever again with my brother. I have a father that moved over to Europe to get away from this, from this […] I wish I would have never told my mother-in-law about the crime. Because, her reaction to the whole thing was completely upside down and I’m not gonna say that it’s the only reason that my mother-in-law is a big part of the problem that has caused friction in our marriage. It came to a point where I told my husband it pretty much came down to whether he picks his mom or me. “I cannot deal with your mom.” And, we went down to visit them in Toronto and I was in a lack of sleep and his mother mentioned something to me in the kitchen and things kind of blew up. And, between me and his mom and the kids were in the living room. They heard the whole thing and my husband just stood there and he froze. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do. And, I said to him afterwards, I said, “As your wife, I would have expected that you would protect me. That you would step in and that you would, you would help.” But freezing didn’t really do much. And, I told him at that time, I said, “You know what? I don’t want to have anything to do with your mom,” […] A few years ago, when this whole thing hit the fan, yeah, our relationship was not solid. And, over the last two years our relationship has gotten much more solid. It has less of an impact on our relationship that, like, my husband never had an interest, like, when I filled out the paperwork to go and visit down in Kingston or wherever my brother ended up. I asked my husband like, do you want to fill out or do you have any – Would you be interested to go and visit my brother, by chance? And, he said, “Nope, nope. No intention whatsoever.” I was, I was okay with that but, it was, it was hurtful. – Carmen, sister.

Relationships between siblings appear especially difficult when one of the children is incarcerated. The fraternal relationship seems to weaken in the aftermath of the events and some brothers and sisters sever ties, often temporarily, with their incarcerated siblings.

Then at first my family didn’t want to see him, my daughter didn’t want to see her brother. Now it’s starting, it’s maybe just 6 months that she’s coming here with her daughters. – Joyces, mother.

Participant accounts illustrate the extent to which incarceration disrupts the parent-child dynamic and creates an imbalance between the attention that parents provide to the incarcerated child and the attention they devote to their non-incarcerated children.

I resent him [my father] for not even considering that my mom might have something to do and he calls her multiple times a day on a daily basis every day, all the time, throughout the year. All the fucking time. […] And it’s, like, I needed to go and get groceries and my mom’s watching my daughter and she’ll be on the phone the whole time. Him just, like, bitching about how he hates his life. […] And, it’s enough so, yeah, I resent him on a daily basis. – Mona, sister.

The mothers we met spoke of the reproaches they endured from their non-incarcerated children who felt abandoned during their siblings’ imprisonment. Of note, these mothers ultimately felt that their children’s criticisms were justified.

Christmas was never the same, you know, for that time it was just … Fun things you would do at Christmas, he didn’t want to do and, um, the guy didn’t even put decorations up when the kids were, you know, my two girls were upset about that. But yeah, I couldn’t, I just didn’t think I was supposed to enjoy when a big part is missing and it just didn’t seem right. She said to me, “Mom, we’re still here. Like, look at us. We’re here.” “No, no, no, your brother, it’s …” “Mom, we’re right in front of you.” And so, I had to do an [examination of conscience] and yes, what am I doing? You know, what am I doing, thinking I’m helping one problem and I’m creating another, you know? – Fanny, mother.

You know, our kids were all, like, in their early 20’s, we didn’t keep them involved. You know, we sort of were just trying to protect ourselves and … You know, try to keep our son, who had been arrested, on an even keel and we didn’t do what we needed to do with our other kids (…). After they, you know, we had shared how we were treated. We kind of shut them out and stopped being parents to them. We didn’t think we were, at the time. We thought we were protecting them. But in fact, what we did was we shut them out. That’s what ended up happening.. And you know, when something like that happens, you, you focus in on where the problems are. So, I know now. And, actually, I’ve apologized to my, my other children and, I say to them, “I, I realize now that I stopped being a Mom to you guys. And they went, “Yep.” They did. And they said, “We relied on our friends for support.” So, they were, they were resentful of my other son. So, relations have improved. They’ve improved for sure, but it wasn’t thanks to us […] And so, it took time for them to rebuild the relationship. I mean, now it’s good, right? They do things together and it’s good. But it’s been six years, over six years now. So, it’s different. But it took time. Lots of conversations that they had on their own that we weren’t privy to. – Erika, mother.


In her thesis, a member of this research team conducted an in-depth analysis of eight unstructured interviews with nuclear family members of criminalized persons in Ontario and Quebec, which reveals the various ways in which justice intervention disrupts nuclear family members’ lives and relationships.

Criminal justice intervention initiates a domino-effect of stressful events, over which family members have little to no control. While grappling with feelings of fear and hopelessness, nuclear family members often find themselves taking on additional roles and responsibilities within the family. Taylor’s (2020) analysis highlights the stress that justice intervention places upon individual members’ sense of selves, as well as nuclear family resources and relationships.

Of note, Taylor’s (2020) research highlights the self-imposed nature of nuclear family members’ moral and legal responsibilities for their criminalized relatives, in contrast to similar literature that focuses on family members’ state-mandated responsibilities[15]. Participant testimonies reveal that when relatives take on personal responsibility for their criminalized relatives’ consequences, they often experience feelings of guilt, failure, and self-blame. These feelings then lead to negative role re-evaluations, revealing that internal self-criticism is often as harsh, if not harsher, than that implied by the criminal justice system.

Participants’ nuclear family resources are significantly impacted following their relatives’ criminalization, as they often feel as though they are obligated to mobilize their financial and material assets to assist their justice-involved loved ones. Between the cost of pre-sentencing legal fees and the post-sentencing cost of phone calls, transportation and lodging to maintain relationships with incarcerated relatives, nuclear family members must manage considerable financial strain. These tensions are exacerbated as family members must often safeguard their relatives’ possessions in their own homes while they are detained. With little warning, nuclear family members’ lives are consumed by and revolve around justice system intervention.

While much of the existing literature on families of criminalized people in Canada highlights the resulting implications of stigma on relationships[16], nuclear family members in Taylor’s (2020) study describe their relationships with criminalized relatives in terms of grief and loss. Using Boss’ (1999, 2006) theory of Ambiguous Loss to develop a detailed portrait of nuclear family members’ relational experiences in the wake of a relative’s criminalization, Taylor (2020) highlights the severe interpersonal ramifications of justice intervention for participants’ families.

For additional information, please consult Taylor’s (2020) published thesis:

C. Extra-familial relationships

A loved one’s incarceration also impacts extra-familial relationships with extended family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, etc. Participants report a range of positive and negative reactions, from support to threats, in their interactions with their immediate social circles or the public.

Relatives often face moral judgment from those around them. Participants describe experiencing both open judgement and perceived disapproval from others regarding their desire to maintain relationships with the detained individuals.

With my sister, we had, at the beginning there, I felt that she was judging me. I don’t know if it was me. There were comments that she made and I really felt like she was stabbing me. Sometimes we would go to see him and then come back and we wouldn’t say a word to each other in the car. […] And I felt that she was judging me. But when I arrived the first time, I was with her and I was crying and she told me “well, it’s like, it’s not worse than at…” […] But I never felt that she was a support. I couldn’t cry about X. I always felt like she was cold and like… well like… “Maybe it’s your fault”. That’s how I felt. – Alexandra, mother.

Because sometimes, my parents are like, you know, they want to, you know, help me. They’re not the worst, but at first it was really hard because they weren’t available. Maybe it was too much for them, I don’t know. But you know, some of the remarks they’ll make, let’s say I talk about it, my father will say, “Well, he says, your guy’s been a liar since he was a baby anyway.” Is it because I need to hear that on top of what I’m going through right now? Fuck, it’s still judgments too. – Noémie, mother.

The big sister, my big sister, she was giving me advice. Wait a minute… it was like, “Go to Europe. Leave everything, go away, you don’t have to take care of him.” They don’t understand the kind of stubbornness that we have in wanting to help them. – Maryse, mother.

Then this… I got into a fight with a girl at the bar because of this. I’d punched a bottle of beer and I knew I was going to crush her in the face. […] She was with her friends. Then they were laughing. […] So, at one point, I looked at myself again and I asked them, I said, “Do you have something to tell me? Do you have something to tell me, like, honestly? Tell me, like.” […] She turned around and said, “Do you want me to tell you? Your dad, he’s a basement dick, uh. He raped the women, uh. Then you, you still talk to him. You live with him. Uh, that [you] should all die.” – Olivia, daughter.

I’ve had a friend say, you know, “Well, you should just walk away.” I’ve had someone say, “Cut your losses. You’ve got two other kids.” – Kim, mother.

In the context of labour relations, participants spoke of reproach and judgment from their colleagues. They also witnessed their colleagues’ attitudes shift towards them, simply because participants were “guilty” of having a loved one in detention.

They judged, first and foremost. They judged. So, I worked with a very large staff. Maybe forty people. And people who’d been very friendly before wouldn’t look at me in the hallways anymore. And that was a real wake-up call. How I was judged, too. You know? […] How awful is that, right? So, yeah, everybody in the family is judged. “Woah, what kind of family is that? What kind of family is that? Her son breaks the law. There must be something wrong with their parenting. There must be something wrong with their family, right? What goes on behind the doors of that family, family home?” So, we were all judged. Absolutely all judged. – Erika, mother.

So, Joe, being the amazing business, like, the person that he was, I think they – Like, my till was short five bucks one night or something like that. Like, at cash out. So, he’s like, “Oh, so thieving runs in the family” [referring to my brother’s arrest]. – Ophelia, sister.

In addition to being subjected to others’ disapproving judgments, participants openly described having experienced a lack of support from those around them. This lack or absence of support – be it from family, friends, co-workers, or society, is yet another consequence of having an incarcerated loved one.

I didn’t have much support from my family at first. I found that very difficult too. But I was there to support my son. – Joyce, mother.

You don’t have a lot of support, it’s hard to get over that. When will it end? I don’t know when it will end. It seems like there’s no end date to it. And that’s it. It’s scraping the lives of many, many people. – Anne, mother.

In some cases, this subject has become a source of conflict and tension in relationships.

You know, I haven’t had people talk to me anymore, but I have friends who had children about the same age as mine and who were raised quite a bit together who, you know… They don’t want their daughters to come in contact with my son. And I understand that very well, but it hurts, you know, to be told that… You know, a friend I’ve had since our kids were little. Our children grew up together. And there… I understand that she’s afraid that… Because my son, when he got out of prison, he “pimped” girls in a network of dancers… I understand that they don’t want their daughters to come into contact with him. I understand very well, but it still hurts, because it’s my child. – Alexandra, mother.

And, I definitely find that that’s, like, kind of ruined our relationship a bit because I feel it’s not something I’m willing to budge on and I can tell it’s not something she’s willing to budge on either. And, that’s just something that we’ve kind of, I think, mutually agree is not worth, like having much of a relationship over if we can’t agree on that. – Kaley, daughter; speaking about her aunt.

It was my family members who were the harshest, right? And, so, that’s where the real stigma came. You know, and the worst insult for me as a child was to be told I’m just like my father. So, if I’m bad, I’m just like my father. That’s what I became associated with. “You’re just like your father because you’re bad.” – Nathan, son.

Participants have indicated that although they feel disappointed, hurt, or frustrated when they experience negative reactions from their social circles, they are resigned to the fact that others will distance themselves from them and their incarcerated relative(s). Some participants simply wish to understand why their acquaintances feel the need to distance themselves and take this relational break.

At the beginning I lost many, many friendships […] I fell too, you know like everyone else when you fall in love and then especially when you want to get married… We were telling everyone, no matter the situation. And… Yes, I have lost many friends. But at the same time (silence) I tell myself that these friends did not respect my choices. But… At the time I understood their fear. Some friends… They remained my friends, but their spouse was the one who was pressuring them. You know, “okay.” You know, I have my friend Julie* who- I can go to their house and then at a certain point, uh, when they started having children, in the 2-3rd year, my friend’s spouse said “you know, Maude, you want to go out, you’re going to see each other, but I’d like you to not have contact with the children.” I’ve had that kind of attitude there…. I’ve had friends tell me “you’re crazy.” (laughs) Who put me down. – Maude, spouse.

My family, well, it’s difficult because my brother, my sister-in-law are his godfather, godmother. They have really dropped out. Then they have two children, 28 and 30 years old, who became parents this summer. And you know, they, since he has his problems… you know, they are afraid of him. And I can understand them. – Noémie, mother.

I’ve had a friend say, “I can’t keep up with the chaos you live in. I can’t deal with –“ […] Just, you know, she’d come over to visit me and I’d be sitting there in a puddle of tears and, you know, “What’s the matter?” And, “You asked me, I told you.” And anyway, so, I lost a friend there. – Kim, mother.

Another friend of 20 years calls me and I was crying, I was crying a lot. But I answer the phone because I thought it was my son calling me. He was incarcerated at the time. “Let’s see Rosalyne, why are you crying like that?” I said, “I’m going to tell you something.” I was crying, crying, crying. “My son is in prison”. [He said,] “No more! It’s over! Finished!” It was one of the people on my will to liquidate, the liquidator of the will. He resigned. It is very, very, very, very difficult! […] There are people [in the support group who have said] “Ah, my sister doesn’t talk to me anymore, my mother doesn’t talk to me anymore, my brother doesn’t talk to me anymore, my neighbours don’t talk to me anymore.” Me, in a way, we’re lucky because we don’t have a family. – Rosalyne, mother.

Some participants have not only faced negative judgment, but also occasional retaliation in the workplace. Noémie describes the need to defend her rights to her employer, as her son’s situation impacted her health and ability to work, particularly due to the leave of absence she had to take from work. Meanwhile, Maude was forced to change jobs completely.

And they [my bosses] wanted me to sign a paper saying that if I was, if I was absent due to illness, it had to be really serious, otherwise, even if I felt sick, I had to report to the office. I didn’t sign. And I was working two days a week. The first day I arrived, my coordinator gave me 10 files, which was a carbon copy of my guy’s [my son’s] problems. I went to see her, I said, “I don’t know…” I was also scathing, I said, “I don’t know where your clinical judgement is […] although I am still a little bit sick, well I have one and I don’t think that I will be able to help this person at the moment with what I am going through, so give me another one.” Fuck, I had a lot of pressure not to be absent. I wasn’t really happy about it. And the problems weren’t over yet. Even in January, my boss said to me, she asked me, “And your guy, how are you doing? I said, “Ah, I’m fine,” it was like minus 30 outside. I said, “My son has been running away for a week. We don’t know where he is.” My boss was there at that meeting, beating me up. She said to me, “I don’t know how you do it, I wouldn’t be able to come to work.” I looked at her, I said, “Do I have a choice?” So you know, that’s it. The health office tried to box me in, the union defended me. I even got money for reparations, basically. – Noémie, mother.

In the school environment, well, that’s it. My ex […] also called the principal and the director of the school board. I was met. And at the beginning of each year we have a general assembly that meets in an auditorium with all the employees […] And um […] the DG of the school board at that time said, “The school board will never endorse a person marrying an inmate […].” I’m sitting in the auditorium and I know that it’s about me, there are not 15 people like that there… But it started because of my ex-spouse, the father of my son, who didn’t appreciate the situation and went to the school board. So from that moment on, I tried to… […] to keep quiet and I withdrew as an educator so that the parents wouldn’t be afraid because I was also met by the school principal. So at that time I… I withdrew and I fell into administration […] I totally withdrew from what I liked […]. – Maude, spouse.

It is important to qualify these testimonies by noting that several participants have received unconditional support. Some have even been able to speak about their experiences without embarrassment or fear of creating tension within their relationships. This is particularly true for Mary, who has never hidden the fact that she married an incarcerated man.

[…] I’m lucky, because I have people around me, and many professionals, I have friends who are social workers, I have friends who are nurses. I have a network of professionals who know about it, my family doctor knows about it. You know, how many women don’t talk about it, either to their family doctor, they won’t talk to them, you know… I knew a woman who was married, who had two children and nobody knew that her spouse was a guy inside. She said she got pregnant on a trip and then she decided to keep the kids. […] At Christmas, my husband, my husband has a list of 150 people that he can call at Christmas, he can call a lot of people, all my family, all my friends, three-quarters of my friends. My girlfriend says, “Give me his address, I’ll send postcards.” I have friends all over the world […] they send postcards, often I know what’s going on in their lives through him. – Mary, spouse.

I don’t think I could ask for anything better. Where I worked, the church I worked at, the Minister was quite involved and knew and was praying with other people at the church. His boss, too, like, everybody was saying, anything I need. Just let them know. Work, my work, the same thing. “Is there anything we can do? Let us know.” – Dem, spouse.

I had offers to help me last year or so, in November, last year, when I was not doing well. One of my friends came here, she brought all her stuff, we cooked together, we made pies and stuff to warm up. And you know, she’s a hard-working girl, she has three kids. I mean, she has her own life. That, it provided me with so much… Well, this shows an incredible generosity, I was flipping out when that happened. No, I had a lot of support. – Anne, mother.

Other participants have attested to the open-mindedness and various accommodations that their employers have put into place.

[…] and I’m lucky, they always knew where I worked because I had my office, my office number, they had called my employer to tell him that we would have to collect calls from the penitentiary. And my boss said yep, and so what. But, not everyone is like that. I don’t hide it, all of a sudden when you hide it from your family, from your employer, you’re already living a lie, who do you talk to and do you have the right answers. – Mary, spouse.

I work in a health care facility there, with my employer… yes, my immediate supervisor knew about it, because you know sometimes I needed time off. Or you know, sometimes I would cry at work or, you know… So yeah, she knew. Most of my colleagues who were close to me were aware and supportive. – Alexandra, mother.

D. When the cases are mediatized….

On a larger scale, some participants have had to juggle the social tribunal’s judgement, as the crimes of their sons or spouses have ended up in the media. Some spoke of being harassed by journalists, others of the media coverage’s negative impacts on their daily lives. Some testified that they had received threats and feared for their safety due to the extent to which their stories were published in the media. Others simply mention their relief that their loved one’s crime has occurred under the media’s radar.

And we’d come to Court in the morning and all the camera people would rush out to take your picture as you’re, as you’re coming in, in, into Court. I mean, really … It’s one of the worst moments of, of, of, of our, of a person’s life and, and then this swarm of vultures comes. That’s the only way I can describe it. – Diane, mother.

[…] What I found most difficult in all this, among other things, is that the media makes a big deal out of a basically harmless gesture, they don’t contextualize it. They don’t have the history of the character, they just sensationalize it and that gets me every time. Because I live in a small town, I live in the countryside, people know me. – Maryse, mother.

Well, I guess even when it started, okay, when it, when he was first arrested it was in the front, um, on the radio station. I was getting phone calls. It was on TV. Um, cross Canada, because I knew people in Vancouver and Winnipeg and I got calls from there. Then I checked it out and it was even on the East Coast, that it had hit the news. […] We had our house egged. We had our window broken. Um, we had penises drawn on our car … Oh, I guess the biggest thing that happened was there, the doorbell rang a couple of times and I, I would go to the door and there wasn’t anybody there so I, just, like, okay. Um, weird. But I looked up the street, down the street, didn’t see anything, went back into the house. It happened, you know, a few times like that and then there was a note left on the door, that they would take my child … and tie her and rape her (crying). So … we ended up having to call the police because it was our, our safety, right? – Fanny, mother.

So when I went there, I remember, I was on the stairs. Then there were the journalists who were on the stairs in the courtyard […] Then the journalists were talking. “Oh yes, his daughter, Olivia*, how old is she? Na-na-na.” “O.K., what does she look like?” “Yes, she’s a blonde. Na-na.” Then they had pictures of me, like. Then they were talking about me, they wanted to ping me, like, to talk to me or pose me or whatever, to know if I was going to be there. But, how much, like, you, you, you want to, like, go get some juice […] – Olivia, daughter.

Our study found that the social messages conveyed in the media and by the public at large affect the interactions of those who have an incarcerated family member. The reactions that family members of incarcerated people encounter are intimately linked to the stigma associated with incarceration and crime in our society. Diane explains that family members are more exposed to the social reactions to incarceration.

There’s a whole, I mean, in a way, there’s an unreality to people in prison. They don’t have to face the public. They don’t have to look at their neighbours. You know, they don’t have to do all, all that, you know? – Diane, mother.

Judgment, tension, and loss emanating from various social circles are common despite the support that participants have occasionally received. Participants’ loved ones’ incarcerations significantly affect their families and social ties. These relational difficulties come in addition to the consequences and new realities with which participants must cope – particularly in terms of their health and material concerns.

2. An undermined family economy

Our research documents the material consequences of incarceration and family members’ economic insecurity as a result of reduced resources and increased expenses. Internal costs (i.e., collect calls and canteen purchases in prison) and external costs (legal fees, transport, insurance, moving, etc.) greatly affect the family economy.

Oh, the money that my mom has actually put in the Institution or Family Hut, she should get a plaque. She should get multiple plaques for, like, supporting the Institute. All these moms should. They all go through that. They all have to budget the phone because that’s their son. (…) [It’s their only] way of communicating with them and if they lose that, you may lose your child. – Mona, sister.

And the food thing, as well, my son put money for the Canteen and, you know, I’m lucky I’m in a financial situation, I’m able to do this. It is within our family budget to try and support him, but we want to. But families that can’t afford to do that and because […] And, as I said, he’s not very big but the food, the amount they get is not enough. He’s hungry, so he’s having to supplement with protein bars and energy bars from the canteen so he’s not hungry. And he’s learned from other inmates, you know, save one thing from your meal so that when you’re hungry later, you have something to eat. Because at least you’ll have food in your stomach… But … And, and another thing, the Canteen, things are so expensive. Hugely expensive. And at first, I thought, well why is the jail profiting from this? Like, I don’t mind if it’s for buying new books for the inmates to read or whatever. […] Well, are they having some company that charges $5 for a tube of toothpaste? That’s ridiculous. No one with other stores that we shop at, that are still making a lot of money, charge that. So, why is it okay to charge them more and the stress on the families and the expense of trying to provide something for them, to me it’s just, it’s just another insult and taking advantage of people that have no other choices. I don’t know. – Gina, mother.

I always worked, sick, not sick, I went to work. The only time I didn’t come home was when my kids were sick. And then, you know, you manage to save a little bit of money. But here, all my small savings went to lawyers, doctors, therapies, […] I came to change my insurance, well, I’m no longer insurable because someone who has a criminal record. […] It costs me double the insurance because I live with someone who has a criminal record with us. […] There, you get put in the way. And it seems to me that I don’t need that right now, to be put in the way. – Anne, mother.

While some families are in a better position to absorb these costs, economic precariousness sets in and debts accumulate for others.

We’re fortunate we had the means. He could call us as often as he wanted. We were able to put money into his accounts so he was able to buy stamps and we were able to visit him once a week. That’s the optimum condition, right? Situation. So, if you have no means, how do you keep up that relationship without going into debt? – Erika, mother.

Kim’s testimony illustrates the many ways in which a loved one’s incarceration presents economic and professional development challenges for those who support them.

We claimed bankruptcy a couple of years ago. Just, you know, everything. It’s always – It’s – I’ve never been able to get a proper job because I can’t..[…] I could never have got a job with everything that I’ve gone through with him because of the number of times I’ve been in court… going to visit him… So, yeah, I could not have held down a job where I had to be there all the time because I would have – Even if I’d been able to do it mentally, I would have had to miss too much, you know, with the crisis of my son…. And, you know, like, on a bad day for my son, if it’s six phone calls, that’s two hours out of my day. Days aren’t that long…I think for everybody it’s set us back, financially. A big one, you know, because of job and because it’s expensive having a kid in jail. And just expectations of what I thought I might do with my life. I kind of have put that on a back burner. […] It has completely changed my identity because I, I, my idea of what I thought I was gonna do as a career, no. My control over, you know, because – Over having a job and financial stability, no. Any control over, you know, I’m walking this way and I –. It’s all fine and stuff like that but I sort of feel like I’ve been floating along with not my purpose but, I mean, I’m being a mother, yes. – Kim, mother.

While some families can cover these expenses or take on additional debt, for others like Beatrice, these costs are prohibitive and prevent her from supporting her imprisoned son through visits, calls, or giving him money for the canteen.

This is my way of making amends because I feel a lot of pain and empathy for the [victim’s] family. Even that, we gave an amount of money that we don’t have. We gave it to the family. We borrowed to give it. It’s certain that they will probably sue us, that’s what I’ve heard lately. And you know, you can’t buy anything, you can’t buy peace. – Anne, mother.

3. Health put to the test

A loved one’s incarceration is an ordeal that also results in psychological and physical consequences for those around them. Participants often identify consequences such as anxiety, worry, sleep disturbances, excessive weight gain or weight loss, tension issues, and extreme physical as well as emotional/mental fatigue.

And so, I would say, for the first six months after it happened, I was in shell shock. I was frozen. And I, I really didn’t know how to help myself get through it. – Erika, mother.

Well, basically, I’ve always had problems with… […] panic attacks. But, actually, I used to have them like not. But… When it, it started, it was… it was terrible, there. I started having insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. I… if I slept two hours a night, […] Now I was having panic attacks all the time […]. Then it just wouldn’t stop. You know, my mom put me in the hospital three times in one week, you know, like. Because I wasn’t breathing. I couldn’t even stand up, you know, walk and then, like, it was like… I was in total panic. – Olivia, daughter.

Just the mental – You know, it’s affected me. I’m on medication. I have anxiety. […] You know, sometimes I just want to be held. And the thought of if I have to, you know, get dressed suitably and go out in society everyday kind of terrifies me. So, you know, it’s affected my mental health. It’s, you know, I still cope. It’s affected my health. I ended up, you know, at The Heart Institute with – Getting tests for chest pains. My youngest has always, she’s always worried about me. The effect it’s taking on me. And, you know, she’ll say, “You’re not the same person you used to be.” I’m not, you know – It’s changed me a lot. I used to be a lot more easy-going and happy and sort of I always now feel like tears are just right there, you know? – Kim, mother.

Well, I’m still made of glass. Like, it takes nothing for me to be in tears and I wake up and a lot of mornings I’ll come down and I’ll say to Jeff, I’m just having a rough morning. I just fall apart. Sorry… Yeah, you realize that you go for months and think, “I haven’t drawn a full breath. Gasping all the time. It’s like I said to my sister one day, I said you know when you paint a room a bright colour and you always have to put a gray primer coat underneath? Even when there are bright days, that primer coat’s always there. I’m always sad. I’m never not sad. – Inès, mother.

This grey cloud hangs over family members’ well-being and persists over long periods in instances of multiple incarcerations, as is the case for Beatrice’s son.

It’s so bad. It’s so awful… It’s hurtful. It crushes me to see him there…And he always stays for years. […] I miss him, you know, and I feel bad for him because for much of his life […] it’s, like, it’s, like, from 17 to 27 years old he will have spent 9 years inside. He has only been released for a year and three months in ten years. So I can’t even understand, like, I feel so bad for him that he didn’t have a life, a girlfriend, he didn’t start, you know, anything. And I worry about his future. I’m worried about when he comes out, what will he do this time? What, you know, if he’s gonna go back to that scene of life? And so, and because I know that every time you get into trouble, it just gets worse and worse. You know, more and even more time, so that’s what worries me. Let him get out and get in trouble again. I don’t want him to spend his whole life over there. – Béatrice, mother.

In cases where relatives are not worried about potential recidivism, family members experience constant anxiety about their incarcerated loved one’s future. These long-term implications cannot be considered calmly.

It never ends and it never will end. It will be with our family always. It will impact my son’s earning potential, even though he’s very well educated, already had a university degree and now has, you know, a community college certificate as well from the time he was Inside. Very well educated. He will never meet his own potential. We might end up supporting him for the rest of his life, the rest of our lives. Who knows? Because he doesn’t make enough money doing what he’s doing to support himself. We feel it’s important for him that he lives on his own so he, you know, we supplement what he brings in to make sure he has enough to live on. So, his life will never be what we envisaged for him. What he envisaged for himself. So, when we die, you know, will his siblings feel an obligation if he’s not been able to get back on his feet? If he can’t get a job that pays more than minimum wage? To be able to support himself, will they feel a financial obligation? I have to tell you, I, I have this incredible urge to save, save, save, save, save so that when we die we can leave enough money, you know, for all of them so that they won’t have to feel they have to maybe support him. Not fully, because, you know, he is getting work but it’s pretty tough to live on minimum wage. Anyway, so, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. And not in a good way. It’s the skeleton in the closet but the implications are far greater than just having a skeleton in the closet, you know, in terms of my son that was incarcerated, for the rest of his life, you know, how is he going to be able to feel good about himself? Everyone wants a job where they can contribute. He really wants to be able to contribute. Tough in minimum wage jobs to feel like you’re really contributing. People kind of treat you like shit, you know? So, you know, what does that do to his sense of self-worth? And then how does that eat away at us as his parents? Yeah, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. I would say it’s never over. It’s never over. It gets better but it’s never over. It’s never over. It’s a life sentence – Erika, mother.

Sometimes relatives’ physical and psychological ill-being is directly attributable to the prison environment. Participants mention many causes, such as their concern for their imprisoned relative’s safety, the after-effects of searches during visits, and treatment from certain correctional staff.

The last two nights, I haven’t slept. I’ve had dreams about that bloody ION Scanner, you know? And, like, literally waking up four and five and six times a night, having dreams about it because it’s so frightening to me. – Inès, mother.

For some, this ordeal results in an increased consumption of pharmaceuticals, tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. While the people we spoke to did not mention self-harm or attempted suicide, the symptoms of ill-being that participants discussed during their interviews are very much in-line with those mentioned in the report (CFCN, 2003).