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Regular communication between families and their loved ones in prison increases ministry effectiveness because it strengthens family bonds and addresses trauma caused by the family member’s incarceration, especially to children. It’s important to view prison visits as part of a larger plan to strengthen and reconcile family relationships. While families should meet in person, you should also support them to communicate in other ways, like letter writing, phone calls or video calls. Ideally, families will begin to initiate regular communication with less national ministry support.
Step 1: Broaden Perspective
- View individual visits as part of a larger plan to meet family needs and strengthen relationships. While prison visits are important and make a significant impact, they become more effective as part of a larger plan focused on meeting the needs of the entire family children, their caregivers and loved ones in prison—and on strengthening family relationships.
- Understand tension or conflict within family relationships. Have regular conversations with families about the importance of strengthening family relationships and to understand the harms or tension that strain relationships. Have these conversations during:
- Preparation sessions. As you prepare family members or loved ones in prison for upcoming communications, reflect on the previous visit or communication and the issues that came up.
- Regular interactions. Incorporate discussions about family relationship dynamics into existing program activities or interactions.
- Debriefing sessions. Ask questions to learn about issues that arose during communications or visits when you debrief with families after visits or communications.
- Develop a plan with families and support them to regularly communicate with one another. Eventually, they may want to meet and address tension in the relationship.
Key Practice: Encourage families to connect with one another soon after the loved one’s incarceration. The longer families go without communicating, the less likely they will stay in contact.
Step 2: Encourage Alternative Ways to Communicate
Clearly, in-person contact visits that are conducted in safe, child-friendly environments are most effective at fostering open and personal communication. But most families are unable or unwilling to make regular in-person visits. They become inconvenient, cost prohibitive or unsafe. Prisons might also cancel or limit visitor access. Consider supplementing in-person visits with alternatives:
- Write letters or emails. Written correspondence gives more time to compose thoughts. Letters are something tangible the receiver can keep and reread.
- Overcoming barriers to letter writing. In some contexts, mail delivery service to/from prison is unreliable, prison mail policies are strict or family members are illiterate. To overcome these barriers, consider:
- Connecting volunteers with family members or their loved ones in prison to help write letters.
- Have PF staff or volunteers personally deliver letters, especially for sensitive communication, as part of regular program activities or interactions.
Key Practice: Negotiate with prison officials to relax mail or communication policies, so families can include photos or drawings in letters or relay video messages through phones or text messages.
- Phone calls. This is a more convenient option for families to communicate with their loved one in prison. Often, the loved one in prison needs to initiate the call. In some cases where conversations are sensitive, you may want to have PF staff or volunteer prepare children or caregivers before the call and debrief with them afterwards.
- Video calls or messages. Some prisons may have technology for families to have video calls. These alternatives will increase as computers, tablets, smart phones and internet become less expensive, more widespread and easier to use.\
Key Practice: Consider the child’s school schedule and caregiver’s work schedule when coordinating date and time for regular calls.
Step 3: Support Families to Communicate on Their Own
Once families are comfortable communicating with one another with your close involvement, encourage them to communicate on their own initiative.
- Encourage families during regular interactions. Whenever you meet family members ask them about their loved ones in prison, and vice versa. Encourage them to maintain communication with each another.
Key Practice: While you should encourage and guide families to communicate with one another, let them make decisions about whether and how they will communicate.
- Provide support so visits happen, and they are safe. Offer support to make communication between families possible, whether they meet in person or use indirect forms of communication. As much as possible, prioritize safety of the family members, especially children.
- Provide physical space for indirect communications. Invite families to the PF office or other private spaces, like a church facility, to write letters or have phone or video communications. Create spaces where the family members can have private conversations.
- Support family members to visit loved ones in prison on their own. Once family members are familiar with prison security procedures, rules and visit routines, support them to make prison visits without PF staff or volunteers accompanying them.
- Arrange transportation. Provide funds for families to travel to the prison and coordinate third-party transportation. Consider purchasing tickets on the internet for families to use.
- Collaborate with prison chaplains. Communicate with prison chaplains to make sure that, as much as possible, families are treated with respect and visits occur in a safe environment.
- Follow up on visits. Add accountability to the process. Follow up and learn how visits went from different sources, including prison chaplains, volunteers, family members and loved ones in prison.
- Provide funds so loved ones in prison can make phone calls to their families. Prisons often do not let family members call their loved ones in prison. Consider providing funds for loved ones in prison to make calls and, if needed, coordinate with the family members outside the prison.
- Items to note:
- While some families may want to visit your office or other private spaces, others may prefer to make phone or video calls in their homes with their mobile phones. Above all, encourage them to stay in contact, however that looks.
- Always prioritize safety of children and caregivers. Depending on the context, it may not be safe for children and caregivers to visit their family member in prison without you there. In fact, your presence adds an important level of protection.
Key Practice: Informal events, like Family Days, with many families, PF staff and volunteers, help demystify the prison visit experience for children and caregivers and make it easier to take future visits.
- Mobilize volunteers to support family communication. Offer volunteer support to make communication between families possible, whether they meet in person or use indirect forms of communication. As much as possible, prioritize safety of the family members, especially children.
Key Practice: Incorporate visits and other family communication efforts into existing mentorship programs you might have for family members or loved ones in prison.
What resources are required?
- Licensed social worker.
- NM staff or committed volunteer to advise about family communications and relationships.
- Costs related to supporting family visits to prison.
- Staff time to coordinate travel logistics and prepare parties.
- As needed; transportation, food, and when necessary, overnight accommodations.
- Costs related to supporting indirect communication.
- Depending on the activity, physical space, materials for letter writing, or internet and communication devices, like computers or tablets, for video calls.
- Transportation stipend for families to travel to/from your office or physical space where activity occurs.
How can I learn more?
- Reach out to other national ministries that can provide support.
- PF Czech Republic: Gabriela Kabátová, Executive Director; email@example.com
- PF Malawi: Roderick Zalimba; Executive Director; firstname.lastname@example.org
- PF Cambodia: Sabun Ou; Executive Director; email@example.com
- Read other helpful resources.