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Coping Strategies for Incarcerated Individuals and their Families

A family member goes to jail. How do you cope?

By Sophia YoungPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Top Story - August 2022
Coping Strategies for Incarcerated Individuals and their Families
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Incarceration of a family member is something no one ever wants to experience. It brings unexpected changes in the lives of those involved, and can even strain relationships between the ones going behind bars and the ones left behind.

It’s never just about an individual losing their liberty – it’s a situation wherein loved ones share feelings of pain, fear, frustration, hopelessness, and a lot of stress and anxieties.

Understanding how incarceration works

Incarceration can be divided into two types: prison and jail. Some people get confused and think these are the same, but they bear a few differences.

Jails are short-term facilities operated by local governments, whereas prisons are long-term facilities operated by the federal state. Inmates in jail typically serve sentences that last for less than a year, while inmates in prison serve sentences of one year or more.

Incarceration has three categories: involuntary, voluntary, and intermediate. Involuntary incarceration pertains to when an individual is imprisoned against their will, such as when they have been convicted of a crime. Voluntary incarceration is when an individual chooses to willingly go to prison, such as when they plead guilty to a crime. Intermediate incarceration, on the other hand, is when an individual is detained for a period that is not voluntary but is also not definite, such as when they await trial.

What incarceration means for individuals and their families

For someone incarcerated:

Imprisonment can have a profound impact on physical well-being. Physical conditions in prisons and jails are often poor, with little access to adequate medical care. This can lead to a wide range of health problems, from hypertension and arthritis to chronic diseases like kidney problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Incarcerated individuals are also at risk of mental health problems. Aside from the loss of liberty and social isolation, incarceration means separation from the people you care about. This often causes stress which can exacerbate existing mental health conditions among inmates. In the most unfortunate cases, this can even develop into suicidal tendencies.

For the families of the incarcerated:

It’s a two-way struggle. Incarceration affects the families as much as it does the imprisoned individual. Other than having to deal with the absence of a loved one in their lives, they might also suffer financial difficulties – having to pay for transportation to and from prison for visits, phone calls, and other expenses.

Families of the incarcerated may also be subject to social stigma for being associated with someone in jail or prison. It can be devastating to experience judgment from society which can fuel further emotional anguish and distress.

Coping strategies for the incarcerated

Be positive.

It’s not the best of times, but fighting the negativity can help you overcome the tough situation. It’s easy to become despondent, but a positive outlook can help you see the circumstances as a temporary setback instead of a permanent failure.

Stay healthy by exercising.

Maintaining a healthy diet in prison is challenging, and poor nutrition and lack of exercise can lead to weight gain, muscle weakness, and loss of stamina. Incorporate exercise in your daily routine to reduce the risks of developing chronic diseases and help your body function at its best.

Keep in touch with your loved ones outside.

It's not easy, but take what you can get. Make the most out of phone calls, letters, or visits to catch up with the people you care about. This way, you can still get a sense of connection to the outside world despite your current isolation.

Get involved in prison programs/activities.

Time passes by more slowly when you have nothing to do. Find resources that can make your day-to-day life behind bars more bearable. Find a creative outlet like painting, writing, or music. You’ll be surprised at how therapeutic these can be.

Seek mental health treatment if needed.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help in managing stress and overwhelming emotions while serving your time in prison. Incarceration can be a traumatic experience, but you don't have to carry the emotional baggage on your own.

Don’t give up.

Losing hope should never be an option. Every day is a chance to turn your life around. Motivate yourself for reintegration into society and building a better future.

Coping strategies for the families

Be patient.

Incarceration is a process that takes time. Be patient with your imprisoned loved one and allow a little self-compassion. There will be lots of ups and downs but in time, things will get better.

Take care of yourself.

The constant sadness and helplessness will beat you if you don’t beat it first. Find ways to distract yourself from time to time – take a walk, read books, exercise, anything! Focus your energy on activities that can improve your mood and cheer you up.

Stay connected with your loved ones in jail.

This can somehow appease your longing for an incarcerated family member’s presence. Be familiar with visiting schedules, then visit them when you can. Maximize other means of communication available – connect calls and letters – to comfort each other and feel less alone.

Study the legal system and procedures.

Stay involved in your loved one’s case by understanding legal proceedings and knowing where they stand in the charges against them. By studying the legal system, you can better advocate for their rights and fair treatment.

Lean on your support systems.

Whether it’s friends, family members, or a therapist, talking about your feelings can lift some weight off your shoulders. Finding support groups in the community or joining online forums can also get you warranted advice and encouragement from people who understand what you’re going through.


There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to coping with incarceration. It’s a difficult and emotionally-charged time, so there will be moments when you won’t know what to do. But remember, you’re not alone. With patience, perseverance, and strong support systems, eventually, you’ll be able to see light at the end of the dark tunnel.


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Comments (2)

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  • Alex H Mittelman about a year ago

    Very well written

  • Talia Devora2 years ago

    You make some true and amazing points. Incarceration is a challenging period and strategies definitely help both the person incarcerated and the families. Thanks for writing this informative piece!

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