The Whole Family Serves the Sentence

When a parent, sibling or child goes to jail, the whole family serves the sentence with that person. 

–Andrea Strong, from “Prisoners’ Family Members Also ‘Serve Time’ When Relatives Go To Jail, Experts Say” Huffington Post 2/11/2013

The impact of having an incarcerated parent has been long explored in the United States as 2.7 million children face the struggle. But what about minors that have siblings in prison? What resources are provided them? In impoverished families, the sibling bond often surpasses the bond of the parent, yet resources are not made available for the brothers and sisters suffering a devastating loss. 

“He drew a heart on my hand in hair gel and told me that I’m the only guy in his life.” 

J told me this during our recent interview, and the image stuck with me. Prior to his incarceration, her brother spent most afternoons with J, shopping, eating, or goofing around. She recalled a common sentiment he delivered her, “I’m the only man in your life.”

Though her brother has been imprisoned for the past four years, J hasn’t found a means to simply move on and put her own priorities at the forefront of her being. Instead, she keeps the metaphorical heart on her hand and worries more about her brother than herself, from the moment she wakes up through her school day.

In Katie Heaton’s extensive study on the issue, “The Sibling Experience: Grief and Coping with Sibling Incarceration,” she found that many resources are made available for children with incarcerated parents, but hardly any for those with incarcerated siblings. Psychologists often believe the trauma to be deeper with incarcerated parents. Also, incarcerated siblings often go unreported.

Heaton says, “Problems arise in understanding the subject because the stereotypes about families that have been prescribed once a member of the household has been taken into custody and sentenced leaves many feeling embarrassed to speak about the subject.”

I wondered why Jennifer shared her story with me so openly, and came to two conclusions. A 2010 study found that 80 percent of minors with incarcerated siblings were never asked how they felt about the imprisonment. Why did J share with me? For one, during the first week of school, I showed the class a video about a man released from prison after 30 years. She may have seen how the story impacted me and decided she could trust me with her personal experience. But another reason exists–she doesn’t believe her brother is guilty. She’s not embarrassed by her brother because he’s innocent in her eyes.

This conviction has also kept J on the straight and narrow path, unwilling to stay into the normal teen delinquencies, because she doesn’t want to let her brother down. Though her pain is profound, she’s not allowed herself to use trauma as an excuse for irresponsible behavior. And though her brother’s voice is only present in monthly phone calls and infrequent visits, he still has an impact, and he hasn’t forgotten his sister despite his suffering.

The Guardian featured an article that revealed to me just how important it is that J shared her story with me, and that I work to find her resources at the school, so she can obtain grief counseling. The article states, “We can be blissfully unaware that there are children who go through this sort of trauma,” and I would have been unaware had J not had the guts to discuss this matter with me.

I’m confident that I can help her obtain grief counseling that may steer her away from the negative behaviors that minors with incarcerated siblings so frequently adopt. Schools have built in resources with professionals that deal with issues of this nature, and I’m confident that this story will be productive in that it will enable J to, if nothing else, find an outlet for her grief.

If you know of a story of a young person struggling with the incarceration of a sibling or have an opinion on how J could move forward, let us know @jsstorypodcast.

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