Monday, April 16, 2012

10 Guidelines for Visiting

By: Lennie Spitale

10 Guidelines for Success
Following are 10 guidelines I would suggest after observing these visits for nearly 30 years in Christian prison ministry. Maybe one or two will be helpful to you.

1. Verbally acknowledge that the other person's stress is real. You are temporarily living in two different worlds. Acknowledge that the differences can create misunderstandings. Empathize, but don't pretend to fully understand the other's stress factors.

2. Give each other adequate time to express your feelings. I recommend that the one doing time allow the visitor to be the one who talks about his or her life first. The prison world is a small one; by listening to your loved one's experiences first, it'll help to pull you out of it a little bit.

3. Give each other the freedom to be honest about your feelings. (If you can't handle the truth, don't ask for it.)

4. There is a time for everything. Agree together whether or not the timing is right to bring up certain issues. If one (or both) of you is not emotionally ready to handle something, you must mutually agree to put it on a back burner until the time is right.

5. Listen with your heart as well as your ears. For the men, keep in mind that, if the visitor is a wife or girlfriend, she doesn't necessarily want you to fix the problem; she just wants you to know how she feels. (Since you are already feeling frustrated at your inability to fix outside problems, this should actually be a help to you.)

6. Identify the real issues. (But do this with gentleness and respect.) Most of the time, the surface issues aren't the real problem. Sometimes the anger is rooted in unresolved conflicts. For example, family members may be hiding their anger over all the pain and turmoil the incarcerated one has caused, but be afraid to express it.

7. The conversation shouldn't be dominated by one person. Agree to give each other equal time to talk about what has been going on in your lives.

8. Be kind. It's not all about you. I once heard someone say: "Be kind to each other. Everyone is fighting big battles." The shrink-wrapped world of prison life can cause one to become very self-focused. And, just as easily, the demands and responsibilities of outside life can cause visitors to become the same way.

9. Make a commitment at the beginning of each visit that you will make no unreasonable demands upon the other. Stick by it.

10. Ask for practical ways in which you can be of help to each other.

 As a young man, Lennie Spitale served a prison sentence for an armed robbery that was later reduced to assault and robbery. Two years after his conversion to Christianity, he began conducting a weekly Bible study in a local jail and has been involved in prison ministry for more than two decades.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Impact of Parental Incarceration

When parents go to prison or jail, their children suffer. The loss of a parent to incarceration can precipitate trauma and disruption that few experience without serious consequences. This loss often compounds or exacerbates existing environmental stress such as poverty, poor schools and violent neighborhoods.

Incarcerated parents were often themselves raised by adults who were chemically dependent, abusive or both. They are likely to have learned to cope and adapt to trauma and distress by lashing out at others and by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. They can lack the ability to attach to others and may not have internalized adequate or healthy models of child rearing.

 For many prisoner parents, rage, depression and addiction is and has been a part of life followed by the criminal activity that addiction can require and rage often causes.

Children of prisoners will experience loss of the parent that cared for them—or of the possibility of a nurturing parent. This loss may include relief that a parent is no longer able to hurt themselves or others. Perhaps the loss is accompanied by satisfaction that the parent will be punished or hope that they will change. But loss remains a consistent reaction to the incarceration of a parent.

When children are present at the arrest of their parent, the loss of separation can be compounded by powerlessness, and violence. In some cases, the child may see police indifference or brutality.

Most children of prisoners are cared for by family members. Some remain in stable environments while others are moved to new communities or schools. Many children are plunged into economic hardship or deeper poverty as a result of the incarceration of a family member. As their caregivers struggle to cope, some children will be exposed to the new or continued substance abuse of family members. They may also
experience sexual or physical abuse. Children, who are placed in foster care, often endure multiple placements and are at increased risk for physical and sexual abuse.

Children with parents in jail or prison feel stigmatized even when they live in communities where many people have family and friends who are incarcerated. Some children even appear to be boastful as they defend against the pain and embarrassment. Children of prisoners, who live with any or all of these conditions and risk factors, have difficulty in school and experience both academic and social failure.

Children of prisoners are rarely helped by not having their parent in their lives in some way. Without that parent, children mourn. Some mourn the loss of the parent that was available to care for them. Others mourn the
loss of what “could have been.”

While caregivers of children of prisoners are often unsure about what to tell them and whether or not to take them to visit, most children adjust better when they are told the truth about their parents whereabouts and when contact between parents and children is maintained.

Visits to a parent in prison or jail are usually helpful in keeping children connected to their parents. There are often however behavioral reactions (increased aggression or anxiety) after visits as children adapt or re-adapt to their loss. These behaviors are difficult and can cause adults to recommend against visiting the incarcerated parent.

Studies do show that most children manage the crisis of parental incarceration better when they visit their parents. But it usually takes time for children and families to cope with the feelings that the visits raise. While not visiting is sometimes easier on the emotions in the short run, out of sight, is not out of mind. Distance leaves a lot of confusion, questions, imagined dangers and fears for kids to deal with. These feelings may show up in problem behaviors at home, school or both and can be harmful to the child over time.

Adapted from Responding to Children
and Families of Prisoners: A
Community Guide by Ann AdalistEstrin and Jim Mustin, copyright
Family and Corrections Network,

Monday, January 30, 2012

The story we hear over and over, but with a happy ending!

This is a reprint from Prison Fellowship's "New This Week" Stories. It's so good and full of hope, I had to share it with all of you. It's the story of a young woman and how she overcame great odds. As a volunteer with Hope Aglow, I do a Bible study in our local jail. I have heard this story so many times. Maybe as you read it you can pray for the women in our society who fall prey to the same mistakes. The best thing about this woman's story is how all things really did work together for her good.

Seven. The number of times Sheaveal Beasley turned in her street clothes for a prison uniform. It wasn’t the path she would have chosen. But when she looks back now, she knows that her life’s journey has only just begun.

Thirteen. Sheaveal’s age when she began taking responsibility for her five younger siblings. Growing up in Punta Gorda, Florida, “we cherished each other because we didn’t have much,” she says. Her parents worked hard when Sheaveal was younger, but they eventually started doing marijuana and the family was largely left in Sheaveal’s hands. Resourceful and hopeful, Sheaveal remained in school, graduating with a softball scholarship to attend Miami Dade College.

Sheaveal and her daughter Amber.
Three. The number of months Sheaveal completed at college before dropping out. It all happened because of a guy… a guy who did drugs. “I wanted to fit in,” Sheaveal admits. “I fell in love with him.” She began smoking marijuana and doing cocaine. Then she lost her scholarship and had to quit school.

Ninety. The year Sheaveal got caught the first time. She shoplifted to feed her drug habit and landed behind bars. First, jail. Then, prison. After getting out, she began writing bad checks to pay for drugs. She violated probation and found herself back behind bars. The cycle had begun, and it would be years before it came to a stop. “I couldn’t deal with the guilt and the shame after having [lost] all of the scholarship,” she laments. “I kept on [using drugs] to numb the feelings that I felt inside.”

Six. The number of children Sheaveal gave birth to while shuttling back and forth between cocaine and prison. Not long after getting clean and giving birth to her daughter Amber, Sheaveal fell back into a rut and went to prison for the fourth time. She had five sons over the next 11 years. A few of them were born cocaine positive.

Three. The number of family members who died in 1997: her mother, her father and her grandmother. While in jail in Charlotte , North Carolina, to be closer to her children’s father Leroy, she received word that her mother had passed away. Five weeks later, her father and grandmother died. “They were my backbone. They were always there for me no matter what I did.” Not long after, Leroy fell sick with cancer. He died in 2004, and Sheaveal was left alone with five of her kids and many financial burdens. “I felt myself slipping back into the old me,” she remembers. So she packed up the kids and moved back to Florida. Desperate for companionship, she began to date an old acquaintance. Not long after they started dating, he began to beat her. Sheaveal landed in the hospital with a brain injury. That’s when she decided to take matters into her own hands. She stole a gun and set out to execute justice. But she got caught before she could enact her plan.

Twenty-five. The number of years Sheaveal was facing when she went to prison the last time. That’s when she finally gave up and cried out, “God, I can’t do this again. If you don’t help, I will die out here!” God answered her by bringing Jeremiah 29:11 to mind: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That promise gave Sheaveal hope that she could find life beyond self-destruction.

Four and a half. The number of years the judge actually gave her. “That was one of the times in my life that God showed me that He is true to His Word,” she said. During those four and a half years at Broward Correctional Institution in Fort Lauderdale, Sheaveal did everything she could to change the trajectory of her life. She began hanging around positive people, went to church, read the Bible and joined the choir. She was certified as a help desk analyst and became a peer facilitator for a drug rehab program. Still, she admitted, there was an emptiness. “No one in my family was talking to me. Everyone was disappointed because I went to prison again.” She needed someone to fight for her.

Two. Mentors. After attending a Prison Fellowship event in prison, Sheaveal learned that she could request a volunteer mentor to help her transition back to life on the outside. A year before her release, Prison Fellowship matched her with two women: Pat Kelly and June Nielsen. “I remember the first day when Pat and June walked in there. I smiled because I just knew that God had sent them to me.” Every other week, Pat and June showed up to encourage her and study the Bible with her. For Pat, mentoring Sheaveal was easy. “By the time we became her mentors,” says Pat, “she had already come to a point in her life that she wanted to follow God, and she was going to do everything she could to make that happen … We just came along in the process that God had already started.”

Twenty-nine. October, 2010 – the day Sheaveal was released from prison the last time.Pat and June met her at the gate and took her out to eat at Cracker Barrel. “After eating prison food for four and a half years, Cracker Barrel was like heaven,” Sheaveal admits. They helped her get settled into a halfway house, where she stayed for three months. During that time, Prison Fellowship also connected her with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church – her “bridge church” –which had committed to helping Sheaveal with her basic needs. They helped her find a more permanent place to live with a woman from the church, and helped her get a job with a local ministry. “I realize that I’m not alone, that I don’t have to do it alone,” Sheaveal says. “I have all of these people I can call.”

One. The number of years Sheaveal stopped dating. Not long after getting out of prison, Sheaveal met a guy. “I thought it was real good,” she says. That’s when Pat and June stepped in. “They reminded me that my downfall was that I would get with a guy and forget everything else,” she remembers. So Sheaveal decided to make a commitment to herself to steer clear of romantic entanglements for a year, in order to focus on her relationship with Christ and make positive life decisions. She stayed true to her decision, thanks to support from Pat and June. “They’re like sisters to me,” rejoices Sheaveal. “They’re like glue. They make me feel like I’m normal. They have shown me how to laugh. They’re showing me how to live.”

Six. Her children. As soon as she got out, Sheaveal began working to regain custody of her children. Last November, she got a job at a beauty supply shop and is anticipating a promotion to assistant manager. She also began renting her own apartment – with assistance from Coral Ridge – and is in the process of paying back child support. She hasn’t regained custody of her children yet, but she talks to them on the phone frequently. Her daughter Amber is in college studying to become a dentist. And all five of her sons are doing well, most of them living with Sheaveal’s aunt.

Forty-sixYears of life. When Sheaveal looks at the past, she doesn’t despair. “I view the past as a shadow, a dark shadow. I view the present as a light … it’s light and joy and peace.”