“Reaching out to Families Affected by Incarceration,” Ensign, Aug. 2010, 62–63
We are given a scriptural mandate to minister to people who are in prison. (See Matthew 25:34–45.) Following are some ideas of what you can do for those who are imprisoned and for their families.
Be aware of—and sensitive to—what the person might be feeling. It’s common for incarcerated people to feel fear about their new surroundings, how they’ll relate to fellow inmates, potential violence, their legal future, and how they’ll be able to relate to friends or family members upon their release. Many also experience anger, loneliness, and depression. They worry about being forgotten or the well-being of their families while they are in prison. Acknowledging the inmate’s feelings can be helpful to him or her.
When appropriate, visit or write letters to the inmate. (Be cautious about sharing your contact information, especially in cases where you do not already know the person.) When a member of one ward went to prison, his bishop and home teacher made regular visits. On a regular basis, the home teacher would report on how the man was doing. The home teacher encouraged others to write to this brother, and occasionally, he would read letters from him. The man wrote touching messages about how he appreciated letters from priesthood quorum members and what their fellowship meant to him. He said he no longer took for granted the brotherhood the quorum offered.
Give encouragement. In writing a letter, for instance, don’t avoid the reality that the person is in prison, but don’t dwell on it either. Instead, share news of your family or the ward as appropriate. Acknowledge that the person’s situation is difficult and then give sincere encouragement. Let the person know that you are staying aware of his or her family and their needs. Most people who are in prison will welcome anything you might write.
Be accepting. Don’t make assumptions about or judge the family based on the actions of one member.
Recognize that the family member’s incarceration may be causing hardship. In some cases, an incarceration might affect a family’s income. In other instances, one parent’s being in jail will create additional responsibilities for the remaining parent or for another guardian. Being aware of a family’s needs can help you know when and how to offer encouragement and resources.
Graciously ask the family how you can help. They may have unmet needs that aren’t obvious to even sensitive observers. Maybe they’ll ask for your prayers. Perhaps they could benefit from inclusion in some of your family’s activities.
Don’t ignore them. Some members may feel uncomfortable approaching the family of a prisoner because they’re not sure what to say or how to help, so they don’t say anything at all. Don’t pretend that the family members aren’t there. Talk with them. Find out how they’re doing. It may be appropriate to ask about the well-being of the person in prison, but focus your efforts on family members and how you might support them. The situation of the person in prison will generally remain the same, but the family will be the ones “plugging away” on a daily basis, facing various challenges that need your sensitive support.