Thursday, October 4, 2007

Go Directly To Jail

Yesterday afternoon, there was a police raid in our apartment building. Apparently they didn't find exactly what they were looking for as the two young men in the apartment were not arrested. But it brought back old memories.

No, I've never been arrested. But my ex-son-in-law is a frequent flyer with the state. Currently, he's working on a sentence that supposedly will end in five more years. Each time he was arrested, he left behind a wife and daughter and total devastation.

I belong to a nice middle class family. Yet in my family I have three ex-son-in-law, my cousin's son, and another cousin's ex-son-in-law. In the interest of fair reporting, we are white, bible-belt, Baptists. Not your "average" criminal's family. You see, there isn't any such thing as a criminal's family. There are families who deal with the difficulties of a child/spouse/parent in jail.

When someone is arrested--we'll call him Wimpy--everything in the world stops for him except his jail experience. Bills, job, obligations...all of those things are the immediate responsibility of someone else. If the two guys upstairs from me are eventually arrested, someone else will be responsible for cleaning out their apartment, disposing of their belongings, paying bills, doing something with their vehicles--and that someone might not have the money to do all of those things.

So Wimpy goes off to jail and wants a lawyer--$5000--minimum and bail--depends on what shenanigans Wimpy got up to. Wimpy leaves behind a wife, children, and no money. His wife--we'll call her Wanda--doesn't have a job. She doesn't have the money to pay rent, utilities, or groceries. Social services is less than sympathetic.

No I'm serious. There is this stigma attached to the family of the criminal. Doesn't matter if it's right or wrong--it just is. It follows you around wherever you go. Everytime you interact with the system, it's there hanging over your head like a black cloud. And if you're a child, you're faced with the unanswerable questions. Where is your daddy? Why is he in jail? Teachers and other professionals don't mean to be nasty, but it cuts the child every time they have to admit that daddy's in jail.

As I said, the social services network is full of holes. Especially until the final sentencing. Even then, social workers are less that sympathetic as though it is the family's fault that Wimpy went bad. Wimpy could have had too much to drink and wrapped his car around a tree and died. That would have been respectable. Then sympathy pours from every possible source. But if Wimpy doesn't die, but instead lives to be arrested... well, what kind of person was Wanda that she kept Wimpy around?

Sometimes Wimpy is an abusive, threatening husband. Sometimes he's a stupidly reckless moron. However, Wimpy ends up in jail, life for his family comes to a screeching halt. In those next two or three days, while Wimpy sits in jail twiddling his thumbs, his family is scrambling for information. What did he do? Why was he arrested? What's the prognosis? Getting information is difficult.

In the meantime Wanda must pull herself together, comfort her children, find a job, navigate a hostile social services system, and hold her family together. Three times in the past, my husband and I have had to move our daughter into our home on less than twenty-four hours notice, find a place for her furniture, and help her start over. That's reality.

If Wanda is feeling kindly or feels that Wimpy isn't too bad a guy and decides to visit him, she is treated like his accomplice. I've been there. When you go to visit an inmate you must have identification. You must fill out a form that tells who you are and why you are visiting. If you bring your children, you must produce a birth certificate for them. You must dress a certain way. You may not take ANYTHING in with you except coins--in case you want to buy something from a vending machine. My daughter was denied the permission to take in a sanitary napkin and nursing pads when she visited her husband four weeks after the baby was born. What do they think the inmates are gonna do with nursing pads? You walk through a metal detector, through a series of cages, until you finally reach the visiting room.

There you are assigned a table. At the head of the room, prison guards are seated at a counter. The inmate must sit in the seat at the table that faces the guard. In most prisons, the inmate is not allowed to hold his child. In some he's not even allowed to hug his child when he arrives. Try explaining that to your four year old. When the family leaves, the journey is done in reverse.

None of this is terrible. But the attitude of the prison personnel is a subtle thing. My granddaughter once asked her mother is she had been bad. When her mother told her no and asked her why she would say such a thing, my granddaughter said that the guards acted like she was a bad girl. She was six.

Then life settles down. If Wanda finds a job, she's pretty much on her own. Social services washes their hands of her--good riddance. If she's lucky and has a family to act as a support system, she'll live a hand to mouth existence, always barely ekeing out a living. Medical benefits? Nope. Child care help? Nope. In some states she won't even qualify for food stamps. If her vehicle breaks down, she'll hope and pray that Mom and Dad can help out.

Oh yeah... anything registered in Wimpy's name? Well, it's pure hell to get the paperwork into the jail so that it can be signed over to Wanda--that's if Wimpy's willing. If not? It could take years. Divorce? Well, depending on the state, that could take years, too, even if Wimpy is willing.

I suppose you're wondering what my rant is about. It's really simple. The family of the inmate committed no crimes. So stop treating them like criminals. That's all. Society--you and me--we treat the families that way. We permit them to be treated that way by the social framework. We make a terribly difficult situation more awful. At a time when they are their most desperate, we make them ashamed to be living. Shame on us.


Amarinda has the Blogga Saga today. Go on over to and check it out. And Kelly has Cindy Spence Pape today as her guest author at so please stop by and meet Cindy!


  1. Guilty until proven innocent unless you are a relative by the sounds of it.

  2. My only experience w/jail has been 1) the time our 4th grade class was taking a tour of the courthouse and our guide put all of us into a cell so we could see what it was like. I decided right then and there to NEVER do anything that would make me end up in one; 2) I visited a friend's friend, and you're are treated rather hostily and it was demeaning to be searched; 3) My niece's boyfriend (and father of her 2 kids) was in jail for stabbing her, and she took the kids once a month to see him. Fortunately, she was already working, but struggling, and we helped her out for a year. Now he's out, and somewhat seems to have his act together. And 4) My first year as a SW major, we toured the state pen in Terre Haute. It reinforced my desire to stay on the GOOD side of the law! Oh, and hubby used to be the night jailer 20 years ago...he knows some horror stories!

  3. Moll I think it's interesting that you have an "only experience" followed by FOUR bullet points. That ain't an Only, love. Sounds positively instrumental.

    Anny, I have never once thought about the family left behind. Even after you spoke of it a week ago, I didn't make the leap to the obligations that get put on hold for the jailed. It's almost like joint punishment: he gets locked up, she gets the reprocussions. That sucks!

    Wanda's daughter needs a hug. Sweet thing. It's not her fault her daddy messed up. Not her mom's either. You would think the guards would know that.

  4. Kell, it's one of those things where you think you only have one point...and then you remember more! I've not showered yet, and have only had 1 cup of coffee. And I quoted you today...