Editor’s Note: In the Natural Supports Perspective Series, SAMHSA’s GAINS Center explores the lived experience of individuals identified as a natural support of a person who was or is incarcerated or justice involved. Our goal is to promote a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities that natural supports may face when providing support to individuals involved in the criminal justice system who have mental and/or substance use disorders or trauma-related needs. Natural supports are established when support and assistance naturally flow due to a previously established relationship or environmental context. People identified as a natural support to a person who is incarcerated or justice involved tend to be family members but can also be friends, coworkers, neighbors, clergy, or local librarians, among others.

Natural supports provide emotional support through personal connection and have been identified as the key to effective service delivery in wraparound care practices. Natural supports of people who are incarcerated or justice involved have the potential to facilitate service utilization and adherence to court orders, from providing rides to treatment appointments, hearings, or parole appointments, to providing a home upon reentry. Numerous studies demonstrate the importance of natural supports for individuals with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities for improving the individual’s mental health outcomes and increasing program efficacy.

In this article, the author requested anonymity to protect and maintain relations with their family, and their parent is given a pseudonym. However, our writer wanted readers to understand the following context: The writer is the eldest of their parent’s three children. In spring 2020, at the start of the pandemic, the writer was finishing their final semester of law school in a state and city to which they had recently transplanted. The following is the writer’s reflection on their experiences with their parent’s incarceration and release.

Content Warning: Parent arrest, incarceration. The following story is the author’s personal experience and may evoke strong emotions for some readers.

I was 5 years old the first time I saw the police rip somebody out of a car and throw them on the pavement. That somebody was my father, Johnny, and I was the only passenger in his vehicle. From that point forward, time with my father happened in 15-minute increments over the phone.

My heart rate skyrocketed when a toll-free number called any of the houses because my father usually called from a county jail or state prison. I say, “any of the houses,” because I did not have one home as a child; for a few years, I bounced between my mother’s, my aunt’s, and my grandma’s.

These 15-minute calls did not come free to me or any of my caregivers. On average, we paid $1 per minute for me to hear my father’s voice. During those fast and expensive minutes, he would ask about “life on the outside” and tell me about “life on the inside.”

We didn’t get to talk regularly for many reasons, but the Security Housing Unit (SHU), or as we called it, “The Hole,” was a common one. SHUs are used in many facilities throughout the country to mitigate conflicts by segregating individuals into solitary confinement. In most instances, folks in SHU are stripped of privileges, such as telephone calls, in-person visits, and recreation time.

It has been shown that the SHU has frequent and highly adverse impacts on isolated persons, including, but not limited to, depression, memory challenges, and increased irritability and anger. They have demonstrated common stress-related reactions like “decreased appetite, heart palpitations, and a sense of impending emotional breakdown, as well as sleeplessness, heightened levels of anxiety, and paranoia.”

As a child, I yearned for the opportunity to connect with my father. Sadly, we remained disconnected due to overpriced minutes, the SHU, and the stark contrast of life on the outside to life on the inside. After being thrown in the Hole, Johnny would sound like a war-weary soldier, with a new battle scar accompanying each isolation. It wasn’t until adulthood that I finally had the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with my father, much less a conversation with an organic conclusion rather than an abrupt dial tone.

At the start of the first pandemic summer, May 2020, I graduated from law school, and my father was serendipitously released from jail. This resulted in a once-in-a-lifetime weekend with my brother, sister, and our father together in California. My father told me he was cleared to leave the state for the first time in decades during our weekend, so my partner and I invited him to our home in Oklahoma.

He accepted this invitation enthusiastically, knowing that it was an opportunity to build a new life near me for the first time in over 20 years. Johnny has always been a multi-faceted person and developed many skills over the years (e.g., butchering, cooking, masonry, construction work, auto mechanics, heavy machinery operation, firefighting). He planned to find work in Oklahoma. The forecast was full of hope and promise.

We drove halfway across the country with A Change Is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke, playing as our anthem. On the drive, Johnny told me about his experience on the inside. I learned about prison hierarchies, the prevalence of mental illness, and the accessibility of illicit drugs in institutions of incarceration.

Unfortunately, after 2 short weeks in our home, my father left. Upon reflection, this outcome is not that surprising given the stark difference in settings. It was probably uncomfortable to be in the quiet and unregulated space in his room of our rural Oklahoma home after 20 years of living moment to moment on high alert, fighting for his peace.

There may be many reasons why Johnny’s transition out of incarceration was short lived. From my perspective, Johnny had it all—we had given it all to him. A home, food on the table, time and space to find work without rush, conversation, and home upgrade projects to help connect us and keep us busy. But it still wasn’t home to him. Instead, he found his way back to his home of 20 years. He went back to the inside.

While some people may think I am giving up too soon, I am at a place of acceptance—both for my father and myself. Historically, I could not provide my father with the support he needed and deserved. However, this time, I was able to provide that support, and I gave it my all—my partner did too. Now, I must accept that I did the best I knew, and so did Johnny.

Over a year ago, I received a toll-free call from my father. Even after all this time, although I have grown in many ways, I have not yet been able to navigate the heartbreak at the end of each call. When the 15-minute call comes to a close, automated warnings interrupt with “1-minute remaining,” then “30-seconds remaining,” and sharply, the automated voice concludes, “your call is ending, goodbye.”

Resources for Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents

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