From Prison Fellowship's Inside Out.
Alyson R. Quinn
Before joining the staff of Prison Fellowship, Pat Nolan spent over two years in a California prison. During one family visit, their second daughter asked Pat, who had grown grayer behind bars, “Daddy, when you come home, will your hair turn dark again?”
When a prisoner is locked up, the world he leaves behind does not stand still. It moves on without him. So when his long-awaited day of release finally arrives, he can’t just transition back into the same job or community that he left. He steps into a whole new world. And his family life is no exception.
During the prisoner’s absence, roles have shifted, children have grown, and emotional and financial hardships have been endured. Even when daddy (or mommy) comes home, the prisoner and his family can never go back to the status quo that existed before prison, no matter how much they would like to. They must negotiate a new family dynamic that takes these changes into account.
Rebuilding a Marriage Means Tackling the Serious StuffIn the early 1990s, Joe Avila was imprisoned in California for a drunk-driving accident that killed a teenage girl. When he entered the California Men’s Colony near San Luis Obispo, he left behind his wife, Mary, and his daughters, Elizabeth and Grace. Joe and Mary accepted Christ just prior to his incarceration, and they were committed to maintaining their marriage, but seven years of separation still wrought great changes in their relationship.
When Joe was released in 1999, he had to take things slowly. “I couldn’t assume I was head of the family just because I was out,” he remembers. “They were doing quite well without me for seven and a half years.”
During his absence, Mary had taken over Joe’s former responsibilities, and she had managed to thrive. After his release, Joe heeded the advice of wise mentors and took his cues from Mary. He looked for small ways to serve and worked hard to prove that he was becoming a better husband and father. Gradually, as he earned trust, he reassumed the role of head of the household.
When it comes to resuming the delicate balance of married life, many couples have a harder time than Joe and Mary. As Lennie Spitale writes in Coming Home! A Guide for Those Receiving a Loved One Back from Prison or Jail, the couple may have to overcome painful, guilt-ridden memories of abuse, addiction, and broken promises. The spouse who stayed at home may await the prisoner’s release with as much dread as expectation.
But for husbands and wives committed to the reconciliation and reintegration of their family, certain processes remain vital no matter the depth of past hurts: patience, true repentance, forgiveness, and communication.
For Pat and Gail Nolan, communication played a particularly important role in their success.
When Pat first came home, he and Gail found it difficult to discuss “serious things.” The children clamored for their father’s attention, and the couple tiptoed around volatile issues that arose from Pat’s reentry into the family.
“We would hold back,” remembers Pat, “and then it would burst like a dam.”
To overcome this difficulty, Pat and Gail reached back to a tool they learned during their engagement. They decided to set up family business meetings every Sunday—a structured time away from their children when they could both bring up pressing issues in a loving, gentle way.
Pat and Gail enhanced those times of communication by holding hands, a physical gesture to remind them of their unity and commitment to each other.
Children Adjust DifferentlyThe night of Joe’s release from prison, his daughters invited all of their friends over to the house. They could not wait to introduce them to their father.
“I’m pretty unique,” says Joe. As the executive director for Prison Fellowship in California, a role he assumed in 2000, Joe has learned that, for most children, a parent’s return from prison comes with more difficulties to surmount.
Ann Adalist-Estrin, a child and family therapist, identifies four stages that many children will go through when a parent returns from behind bars.
- The honeymoon phase. Eager for everything to work out, children are cooperative and obedient, but anxiety can lie under the surface.
- Suspicion. As they grow more comfortable, children will allow some of their more negative emotions to rise to the surface. They will question the returning parent’s position and permanence within the household.
- Resistance. Children may go through a period of defiance, challenging the returning parent’s authority and love with rebellious behavior.
- Expressing or withholding feelings. Children may ask whether it is acceptable to vent their emotions, or whether they need to hide their true feelings about the turmoil going on in their home.
Whichever phases a child goes through, it helps if the caregiver and the returning parent prepare the child before the date of release. Whenever possible, and with appropriate supervision and guidance, the child and the parent should interact through personal visits, phone calls, and letters. Maintaining a positive relationship before release will ease the process of reintegration. The child should also be included in discussions about the parent’s return and what it will mean for the family, though the complexity of the discussion will vary depending on the child’s age and maturity. Finally, educators, school counselors, and Sunday school leaders should be made aware of the child’s unique needs during the time of the parent’s return. Greater awareness can help these adults respond more positively when a child demonstrates stress, fear, or anger.
Ex-Prisoners Need to Put First Things FirstShortly after Pat’s release from prison, family friends invited him, Gail, and their children to spend a day at the beach. Excited for a respite from daily life, the Nolans packed up their family car with beach gear and prepared to hit the road. But then Pat remembered. The beach was outside of his parole district, and he had forgotten to inform his parole officer. In a panic, Pat attempted to reach his parole officer and, when that didn’t work, her supervisor. His efforts were to no avail, and he had to tell his heartbroken children that the trip was canceled.
“They were crying,” Pat remembers, as he also fights tears in the telling.
Pat’s dilemma highlights another important component of family reintegration. In the rush to become parents and spouses all at once, ex-prisoners should not forget that their own transition must come first. Whether they need to overcome an addiction, get a handle on their anger, or simply meet the technical requirements of their parole, ex-prisoners cannot become the trustworthy spouses and parents their families need until they resolve their own issues.
“They have to work on themselves a little bit at a time,” adds Joe, reflecting on the slow and sometimes tentative work of reentry and reconciliation, “but they get more respect from the family if they do that.”