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My Family Member is Getting Out of Prison: What to Expect

Every year, over 7 million people are released from jails and over 600,000 from prisons across the United States. That means north of 7.5 million men and women with families are going back out into the world after living in a decidedly different set of social norms. It is becoming increasingly common for families to have a moment where they wonder what it will be like when their loved one gets out and what they can do to prepare.

While there is no definitive list to check off as you make preparations for your relative to return to society, there are some constants that will create a softer landing for them and a sense of normality for you. Let's start with the main points.

They Have Lived in a Hostile Environment

When an astronaut spends any amount of time in orbit, they have to endure physical therapy for months afterwards to help their muscles and bones adjust to the gravity that we all take for granted. Similarly, when someone is in prison, they are living in what may seem like another world or alternate universe where they constantly have to look over their shoulder, obey orders given like a drill sergeant, and sleep with one eye open to protect themselves. Psychologically, just living that way for a few days can have serious effects on the mind and exposure over years can cause PTSD. Your family member is going to needs some time to heal from that and get used to everything from loud noises from traffic, the freedom of choosing what to order from a restaurant, and trusting someone. Avoid surprising them from behind and speak calmly with encouragement and understanding. This change is not going to happen overnight and they will need your support to feel like they can truly trust you.

Their Though Processes Will Take Some Work

The most obvious thing to expect is that your loved one is going to need help with their thinking. Fortunately, in Arkansas we have been able to put in place some classes to help get start pre-release and speed up the process. This preparation is a process and merely plants the seeds while the true growth happens once they are released. A poor decision is what landed them behind bars, regardless of the crime they were charged with. Recidivism (a return trip to prison after release) is very high and most of these cases could have been prevented with a little effort on their part and someone who can give support. At Returning Home, we have mentors, volunteers, and peers that our members can lean on and work out their thought process to help them make better decisions in the future. If you have the opportunity, ask them sporadically what they are thinking about doing or how was their day and then ask what their thinking was that led them to these goals or actions. Just talking about what is going on behind the veil in their mind can be extremely therapeutic and put them in the position of thinking about how they operate and why they think that way.

The First Step Can Be The Hardest

If you have taken any psychology classes in college, you undoubtedly learned about Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs. This pyramid has 5 steps to changing who you are as a person. Beginning with physiological needs (food, water, clothing, etc.) and climbing up from there leads to a point where a person is able to focus on changing themselves for the better. That first step can be very difficult for someone coming from prison. Imagine walking into your kitchen and picking out your breakfast, grabbing a glass of milk, and pulling clothes from your closet to wear for the day. To someone who has been incarcerated, walking into a kitchen can freeze them in their tracks. For months or even years, their physiological needs have been met by the state or federal authorities. Their clothes were the uniforms issued to them, their meals came from the cafeteria with a standard issued main course, and a roof was always over their head with a bed to lay down in. The infinite choices that we see as everyday life can be like Kryptonite to your family member for the first few weeks out. The sudden confrontation of choices like which coffee to buy at Starbucks is a shock to their system and overwhelms their mind. The same thing happens to people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and psychologists recommend helping them get the analysis paralysis by narrowing their choices down to 3 options. This greatly cuts down on the amount of information flooding in and makes the task seem much more manageable. Offering a full menu or letting them have free range in a clothing store can be counterproductive and cause them to choose what they have been familiar with when they were incarcerated, which can hinder shaking off their institutional way of thinking. Give them a few options and be patient. They will find their style and preferences in due time.

Men and women are released every day across the country. More often than not, you will hear reports of parolees returning to prison over the success stories. While they may seem like a fraction of the population, there are many inspirational stories to tell of lives being changed and finding success on this other side of the razor wire fence. No matter where your family member started, the chances of finding an established, productive life are tremendously multiplied when you are prepared and willing to support them. If you need any guidance or have any questions, feel free to reach out to us at our office.


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