A Family Member in Prison? You are Not Alone

Early in my career, I met a young woman who had it all together. “Kristen” had a great career and was a loving mom. She was well respected, both personally and professionally. Kristen had never been in trouble; she was a rule-follower.

When a friend was getting married, Kristen was the one who arranged the hotel for a bachelorette party, so no one would drink and drive. The morning after the party, when Kristen was driving home, another car ran a red light and T-boned her. The driver died. Kristen had a blood alcohol content slightly over the legal limit and was charged with second-degree vehicular manslaughter.

In a split second, Kristen joined the more than 77 million Americans – that’s about one in three adults – who have a criminal record. According to the American Sociological Association, almost half (45%) of Americans have had an immediate family member incarcerated. Almost half of those incarcerated in state prison (47%) and more than half of federal prisoners (57%) have at least one minor child, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Behind each of those statistics are children, spouses, parents and siblings who have been financially and emotionally devastated by having a loved one currently or formerly incarcerated or on probation or parole.

And regardless of the crime – whether it’s armed robbery or felony assault for a bar fight or stealing to fund a drug addiction – those who have spent time within the prison system face discrimination long after they’ve paid their debt to society. Family members often feel guilt by association from their co-workers, neighbors, friends and others in their social and community network.

A Taboo Topic

Chances are that you and your family – either firsthand or indirectly – have experienced the financial hardship, the stress, the worry, the chaos and even the shame of knowing someone who has spent time in the criminal justice system. I’ve known the silent fear and anxiety that comes with waiting on a family member’s verdict – telling no one of the sadness that filled my heart, for fear I would be judged for someone else’s crime. Praying they would receive probation or jail time, but please not prison. I’ve also watched the lifetime of struggle long after they completed their sentence.

The topic is taboo and not something that routinely comes up during the annual neighborhood barbecue, monthly book club meeting or conversations around the office water cooler.

So, we don’t discuss it. We give a vague response when asked about the whereabouts of incarcerated family members. We stay in denial. We keep it a secret. And we feel alone and embarrassed. The burden grows even heavier.

Prison Is a Financial Hardship for Families

As a financial adviser, I’m concerned about the financial impact on families and focus on helping them navigate the myriad money decisions they must make. I’m also deeply concerned about the emotional anguish and stigma of either having spent time in the prison system or loving someone who has.

It’s a legacy of collateral damage that can last for generations.

Yes, every incarcerated person receives three meals a day, as well as personal hygiene items like soap and toothpaste. But what if someone wants a snack? Or a postage stamp? Or runs out of prison-issued shampoo? For families on the edge of the financial precipice, sending commissary money for extra food and necessities can take a big chunk out of their family budget. The Prison Policy Initiative, an organization working to reduce mass incarceration, estimates that families spend $2.9 billion a year on commissary accounts and phone calls.

Costs for basic necessities are high. Many correctional facilities contract with private vendors that inflate prices and even charge service fees for items such as clothing or electronics. Of course, prisons do offer employment opportunities for inmates. The pay for those incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons? Up to about $20 per month, according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

The High Costs of Staying Connected

Keeping the connection between the incarcerated person and their family and community improves the chances of successful re-entry and reduces recidivism, studies have shown. It also improves the well-being of the family: Family members not able to talk or visit with an incarcerated loved one are much more likely to report negative health effects. Conversely, those children who stay in touch with their incarcerated parents are less anxious and have fewer behavioral problems, reports the Prison Policy Initiative.

But families can go into debt trying to stay connected. Since a few private telecom providers have had an unregulated monopoly on providing phone service in prisons, costs are as much as $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call, the Prison Policy Initiative reports. Thankfully, the FCC has implemented an order to stop price gouging on some types of calls.

The incarcerated person may be in a facility far from where the family lives. Costs for gas or public transportation are another expense families have to shoulder. Sometimes they must choose between supporting a loved one in prison or providing for the basic needs of their families. Do they pay the utility bill, or pay for transportation to the facility to visit their spouse? Buy nutritious and healthy (and more expensive) food for their children, or put money into their spouse’s commissary account?

Legal and Other Fees Quickly Add Up

Families often have to pay for court fees, restitution and fines when a family member is sent to prison. The average family pays about $13,000 – and some pay much more. Approximately one in five families across all income levels had to take out a loan to cover these costs.

There are other hidden costs that can financially cripple a family, including the loss of a wage-earner and child care costs if the other parent must now work outside the home.

Also, many people mistakenly believe that health care is free for incarcerated people. While prisons and jails are mandated to provide health care, they also charge co-pays, which can range from a few dollars to $100 or more, again typically paid by the family.

After Release, the Impact Continues

When the incarcerated person returns home, they are required on job applications to truthfully answer the question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” As a result, many remain unemployed or underemployed in jobs that tend to be low-paying and unstable.

Beyond the financial impact, there’s often emotional distress as well, and many who have been through the prison system suffer from PTSD, nightmares, hopelessness, depression and anxiety that make it difficult to rejoin their community.

What Would You Pay to Keep a Loved One Out of Prison?

It’s a sad but not unfamiliar scenario. A family friend has spent and borrowed thousands upon thousands of dollars in a frantic attempt to help her son with an addiction problem complicated by mental health issues stay out of prison. To pay for multiple stints in rehab, high-priced attorneys, and bail, she’s borrowed heavily against her 401(k) and will delay retirement, perhaps forever. This formerly financially sound woman is on the verge of losing her home.

Desperate families are also vulnerable to early-release scams in which families are led to believe that they can get their loved one out of prison by paying thousands of dollars to the right person or organization.

It’s heartbreaking to witness. When does a parent say “enough,” from a financial perspective? How do you continue to show love to a person yet withhold financial help, whether you can afford it or not?

That’s not a question that I could answer for any other person. I’m not even sure it’s a question I could answer for my family. But I can encourage anyone who finds themselves in financial or emotional distress to educate themselves on the consequences of their financial decisions, get unbiased advice from a financial professional, and explore all options when helping family members.

Start the Conversation

Having a family member in the prison system is incredibly stressful and can push any family into a financial crisis. But you don’t have to go it alone. There are organizations committed to lifting the extreme financial and emotional burden on both the incarcerated and their families. But we have to destigmatize having a criminal record so people will be willing to reach out and ask for help.

Many areas in the U.S. have community-based programs to help families with housing, transportation and employment. Others will assist with family reunification and reintegration when the incarcerated person is released. Here are a few national resources that I hope you find helpful:

  • Prison and Family Justice Project: Addresses a wide range of issues, including helping families stay in touch with incarcerated family members.
  • The Reentry Network for Returning Citizens: Helps the formerly incarcerated become productive members of society and their community.
  • Essie Justice Group: A non-profit organization of women with incarcerated loved ones committed to righting injustices created by mass incarceration.
  • The Messages Project: This non-profit works to maintain the bond between children and their incarcerated parents. Volunteers have recorded more than 19,000 video messages between incarcerated parents and their children.
  • The Second Chance Coalition: A cross-sector coalition of large private-sector firms committed to expanding hiring and advancement of people with criminal records.

As a result of her arrest, Kristen was fired from her job — a job that paid well and was personally rewarding. Sentencing could have gone one of two ways: five years’ probation, or prison for vehicular manslaughter. I honestly don’t know the final outcome as I moved out of the area and lost touch with Kristen. But even if she received the lighter sentence, she still had to contend with a sudden loss of income at the same time she needed to come up with legal and other fees. The emotional and financial toll on Kristen and her family would impact their lives forever.

Senior Vice President, Financial Planning, Carson Group

Erin Wood is Vice President of Wealth Planning at Carson Group, where she develops strategies to help families achieve their financial goals. She holds Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor designations.

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