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For families with loved ones in prison, incarceration takes its toll

on December 13, 2018

In 1984, Don Cooper was convicted of first-degree murder. He was defending his wife and kids from a robber, he said, and killed the attacker. Close familial bonds are what gave him hope while serving a 36-year prison sentence, Cooper said—and it was the same for the other few inmates he trusted. “My perception is that the few people [in prison] that you let into your life, family is still in their corner. They’re still supporting them, not always financially but emotionally. And that’s—that’s the key,” Cooper said confidently.

Cooper was released from a Minnesota prison a few months ago, and moved to California to carry out his probation. Today, the 70-year-old attends meetings at Community Works, an Oakland non-profit organization that helps people affected by incarceration. Community Works’ programs use what they refer to as “translational justice,” the practice of listening to, and learning from, those affected by incarceration in order to advocate for humane policies and practices. The non-profit offers these programs because the staff recognizes the burden placed on people and their families as a result of navigating through the justice system. According to their website, about 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated.

Community Works, along with other East Bay organizations like Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), are working to help these families with services like providing in-depth parenting classes for incarcerated people, group therapy for women with incarcerated loved ones, and providing counsel or co-counsel for prison-related lawsuits.

Oscar Flores, a national organizer for LSPC, said that it’s important to empower formerly incarcerated people to work for things that enhance their lives after they are released. “Our people need to be a part of us this work,” he said.

Sitting on a couch in the Community Works living room in Oakland with two other men, Cooper has grey hair, but youthful energy and a warm, friendly demeanor as he seizes every opportunity he can to make playful jokes. He participates in a “citizens’ circle” or a “restorative justice circle,” a weekly meeting which functions as a life skills class, which parolees are required to take as part of their reintegration into society. It is a space for meditation, and for people to talk out their issues and receive positive reinforcement from Community Works staff, volunteers and each other. Most of the parolees in his group were initially convicted with life sentences and are usually above age 40. Visitors and volunteers with no experience with incarceration are welcome, though confidentiality is stressed.

Project manager Jo Bauen says programs like the circle are crucial because incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are a part of society, and are needed. “Rather than asking, ‘What happened, who did it, and how can we punish them?’ it asks what relationship was broken, how can we mend that broken relationship, and keep this human being in our community because we need every person,” she said.

Cooper credits his family with getting him through his sentence. His wife and their three kids stayed in contact with him through phone calls and visits. But it wasn’t always easy. Cooper and his family lived in Illinois, but he was first sent to a prison in Vacaville, California. Cooper was later transferred to a number of prisons throughout California including San Quentin, Folsom, and ones in Tracy and Solano. He said that was a tough blow for his loved ones to take. “It was hard, more so [for] them than me,” he said.

Eventually he was able to arrange interstate transfer to a prison in Minnesota, and it became much easier for his family to visit him in person. In the meantime, he said, they supported him by communicating in other ways. Cooper’s brother sent packages and provided financial help for buying hobby materials. That, Cooper said, “made mine [incarceration] tolerable, because I knew somebody out there knew me. Not just my name, but knew me as a person.”

And talking to his kids by phone encouraged him to follow prison rules and avoid “disciplinaries,” or infractions for misconduct. These infractions can result in a person losing visitation privileges or getting an extended sentence. “Anytime they didn’t hear from me in a week, they would get on the phone and say, ‘Where’s my dad?’ So they were an integral part in fighting to stay disciplinary-free,” he said.

Cooper doesn’t think the relationship between him, his wife and his children changed that much during those 36 years of being locked up. “It was hard on each of us, but it was still the same. I mean, love is love. And, I mean, we argued and have a little tiff, but it was never anything we couldn’t get resolved,” Cooper said.

Cooper’s family stuck by him, but it is difficult for many people to stay in constant communication with their incarcerated loved ones. Having a family member in prison can place a heavy burden on families, especially when they are separated long distances, like Cooper’s family was. In 2014, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design co-launched a participatory research project that included 20 community-based organizations. Trained community researchers went into communities in 14 states to ascertain the financial costs that occur when a loved one is incarcerated, the resulting effects on people’s physical and mental health, and barriers to reentry when incarcerated people return home.

The resulting study, “Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families,” was released in 2015. The authors found that separation caused by incarceration as well as the barriers to maintaining contact while incarcerated hinder reentry and create significant challenges for family stability. “In the research for the report, nearly half of survey respondents (47%) reported that members of their families separated, divorced or dissolved their partnership as a result of incarceration,” the study reported. “The study also found evidence that individuals with longer sentences were more likely to experience the dissolution of relationships.”

According to the “Who Pays” study, barriers to maintaining family stability include visitation expenses and the location where the loved one is incarcerated. Visitation expenses can include plane fare, gas money for driving, funds for staying at a hotel overnight, and money for food. The amount spent varies, but if the incarcerated person is being held at a prison in another county or even another state, then that can be a significant drain on a family.

Inmates’ loved ones also struggle to pay the cost of phone calls, which are charged to the friend or family member who accepts the call. Private telecommunication companies such as Global Tel Link and Securus dominate the prison phone industry. Global Tel Link boasts of providing services in 2,500 correctional facilities with locations in 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. According to their website, 2 million inmates use Global Tel Link services, which is 90 percent of the US inmate population. Securus serves about 2,200 correctional facilities across the US and Canada, according to their site.

In 2012, the Prison Policy Initiative—a non-profit in Northampton, Massachusetts that conducts research about the effects of incarceration—estimated that added fees charged by companies make up more than a third of the annual $1 billion that families were paying to call family members in prison. In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission established an interstate rate cap on these phone companies, both lowering rates from $17 to $3.75 for a 15-minute call and banning additional fees for collect calls.

“The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three (34%) families into debt to pay for phone calls and visits,” the “Who Pays”? study concluded. Those who talked to their loved ones less frequently were more likely to report experiencing negative health effects related to a family member’s incarceration.

Community Works is trying to help people like Cooper reconnect to the outside world once they are out of prison. While Cooper and his family manage to remain close, incarceration has given him an appreciation for a community that is often stigmatized.

“Incarcerated persons for the most part are not bad people. They may have made a mistake, they may have used that [bad] judgment but in all cases most of the individuals know they did wrong, want to serve their time, gained what they can and start a new life,” Cooper said. “Life requires moving forward. One of the greatest programs going currently is restorative justice, the concept of feeling the harm that you caused and paying back to the community positive work—good deeds helping those at need help being available to others.”

Restorative Justice plays a central role in Community Works’ programs, and senior director of public policy Kyle Castillo details exactly what it is: an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system, which Castillo says is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation.

“In many ways, it seems like an eye for an eye,” Castillo said. “So people are harmed by crime. Then people who commit those crimes—instead of examining those crimes and what the root causes of that were and what harm may have been done to them as well—you instead inflict harm on those people in response to committing those crimes.”

Instead of a punitive approach, restorative justice works takes incarcerated people through a healing process. The goal is to make sure the person who committed the crime takes accountability for their actions and makes amends with the people they harmed, while also leaving room “for the examination of that [incarcerated] individual as a complex human being and what kind of root causes are behind that behavior,” Castillo said.

“We are all one community,” he said. “If one community member harms another community member, you do not ostracize that member, but instead find a way to heal that relationship so that the community remains whole.”

Castillo has been on staff for nearly two years. His first interaction with the organization was as a client of Project What, Community Works’ youth-led program for children with incarcerated parents. Throughout Castillo’s childhood, he said, his father was in and out of jail. When he was in high school, one of Castillo’s classmates told him about Project What.

“I went with some skepticism, but they were willing to pay for my transportation fare and provide us pizza, so I showed up,” Castillo said. “I found some community there and really enjoyed interacting with other young people who didn’t make me feel ashamed or nervous or anxious about my experience with parental incarceration, and to be supported by adult staff who really have humility and sit back and embrace what youth-led meant for that particular program.”


While Castillo and Community Works take their clients through a restorative process to unpack pain caused by incarceration, fellow Oakland nonprofit Legal Services for Prisoners with Children focuses on changing the justice system through legislative advocacy and public policy.

Flores said their mission statement is advocating through grassroots organizing, leadership development, and policy work for basic human rights for those who have experienced incarceration . “We have done a number of campaign drives. The one that we’re most known for is ‘Ban the Box,’ which is something that culminated into a law that employers may not ask for people to state whether they’ve been incarcerated,” Flores said. “Definitely the policy is a win, but a lot of employers don’t even know they’re not allowed to do that.”

Flores joined the organization in February, and said that his works hits close to home. “Luckily I’ve never been to prison although came close a few times. Nevertheless [I] carried the burden of a felony on my record. And also even when my life got back on track, the community I was a part of—and when I say ‘community,’ the people I knew were a part of that life of gang banging and drug dealing—although I was part of a youth organization and I was the actual director of it, things happened around my family that kind of dragged me back into it,” Flores said.

Working with LSPC, he said, makes him feel of value and important in helping communities affected by incarceration. “Oftentimes, we’re tokenized. And even with folks that are allies [of incarcerated people], we’re relegated to giving testimonies at rallies or [to] boards of supervisors or legislators statewide,” Flores said.

The group’s legislative work involves serving as counsel or co-counseling on lawsuits that have the potential to affect conditions for many incarcerated people, or to highlight an important societal issue. For example, LSPC attorneys served as co-counsel for Ashker v. Governor of California, a 2012 federal class action lawsuit brought by the Center of Constitutional Rights on behalf of the prisoners held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent a decade or more in solitary confinement. The plaintiffs argued that prolonged solitary confinement infringes on the Eighth Amendment and “the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ rights to due process,” according to the CCR’s webpage. The case reached a settlement on September 1, 2015, ending indeterminate solitary confinement in California, and significantly reducing the number of people in isolation.

LSPC senior organizer Sandra Johnson does community outreach and education in communities she says are affected by incarceration. Johnson herself spent three years in prison, and was separated from her family because she was sent to California Institute for Women in San Bernardino County although her family lived in Monterey, California. She initially joined LSPC through their Ronald “Elder” Freeman Memorial Policy Fellowship, named after an original member of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party. The fellowship selects formerly incarcerated people to participate in this one-year program to learn grassroots organizing and legal and administrative advocacy.

This work is important for Johnson, she said, because being locked up drastically changed her life and the lives of her children. “Just imagine that, here I am, I’m gone from their lives for three years, they get to see me maybe a few times,” Johnson said. “My youngest son today, who is grown—and I’ve been out since 2007—we still have problems. I’ve been through parenting [classes] and a lot of things, but when he gets really upset at me he’ll be like, ‘Well, you abandoned me. You know, you went to prison.’”

In 2018, Essie Justice Group—an Oakland nonprofit that provides services for formerly incarcerated women and those with incarcerated loved ones—published the study “Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones” to understand the effects of incarceration on women. Their main research partners were the Prison Policy Initiative and Research Action Design. They also had numerous state partners such as California based organizations Family Unity Network and the Transgender, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project.

The researchers asked women who had been to prison or who had loved ones in prison to fill out a survey, and their responses were measured on a 6-point scale that sought to catalogue the women’s personal feelings of loneliness, and whether or not they had people in their lives they could trust and rely on. The study found that women with incarcerated loved ones report experiencing stress, anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness and fatigue, and that they also feel extremely isolated. This high level of isolation experienced by women often starts right away, when their loved ones are arrested.

One woman surveyed, whose name is not mentioned, spoke about the night her partner was taken away. “I found out he’s at General Hospital in the jail ward. And it was just devastating. Nobody tells what you to do. Nobody tells you who to talk to,” she told the researchers. “I had nobody to go to. Nobody in my family ever really had to experience that, so who do you talk to? And people in my family, they wouldn’t understand and they’d be judgmental. So who do you go to?”


Incarcerated people, along with their family members, feel the effects of incarceration on their mental health, and the process can be long and difficult. For 51-year old Macy Harris, a member of Community Works’ citizen’s circle, the moment he was arrested, he understood that life as he once knew it was over. “Once I was in handcuffs, I had a feeling that it was going to be a long time before I saw society again,” Harris said.

Harris said he was raised in South Central Los Angeles by a loving mother and father and was really close to his oldest sister. His father died when he was young, yet his relationship with his mother stayed strong. Harris said his arrest stemmed from his gang affiliation. Harris said when he was 16 years old he was cruising in a car with his brother and some of his friends one night when people from their neighborhood were murdered.

Harris and his friends were approached by police officers, and said some of the witnesses—young women “who just witnessed their friend or boyfriend get killed”—picked him out of a lineup. “They picked me out of 20, 30 people,” Harris said. Harris maintains his innocence, saying that the witnesses picked the wrong man. According to him, the police received a description of a man with dark skin and Jheri curls. But Harris has a lighter complexion, and wore braids.

He served 33 years after being convicted of second-degree murder. He was first sent to a Youth Authority center in Ontario, California, and then transferred to a prison in Chino. Prison turned out to be a grim setting, and surviving for Harris meant detaching himself emotionally at times. “I felt isolated, I felt alone, but I had a point in my life where I knew I had to survive my environment. At certain times I wasn’t giving no energy or no thought to family members because I was concentrating on my environment,” said Harris.

For Harris, it was harder to keep up family relationships than it was for Cooper. He said his mother stayed in contact through phone calls, though it took years for her to be emotionally ready to see him while he was locked up. “Out of the 33 years I’d been in prison, she visited me once. She died back in 2010 and I saw her in 1994, and that’s the last time I saw her. That memory right there, it was a beautiful moment, but it was sad,” Harris said. “It was hard on her because she couldn’t stand to see me locked up in prison. That’s why she never came back to visit me. It was too much for her.”

Harris said he also had to own up to his mistakes with his sister, who told him plainly that he wasn’t acting the way she thought he should be. “I always used to apologize for my action and she always used to say, ‘Well, you apologize for your action and you still continue to be a bad example for a family member.’ That didn’t click in—I didn’t understand that part until years later,” Harris said. “That’s when I started changing my values, started changing my belief system. That’s when the empathy, that’s when I learned to be an actual good person.”

Harris believes communication and patience are key to renewing family bonds and keeping them strong. “A lot of families have issues. There is no perfect family. So you have to be patient with family members—you know, that’s your blood,” Harris said. He added that if you have information that will better their lives, then you should share it. For him, his Christian faith is what he offers to his loved ones. “I always talk about God, and because I’ve never been a drug user I talk about [taking] no drugs,” Harris said. “There’s always something out there that can make your life better. Our family has been through a lot, and we are here for a reason, so there must be a higher power.”

He was released from prison in July, and is currently working for Roots Community Health Center, a clinic that offers affordable urgent care and primary care in Oakland. He is a share connect navigator working with the homeless, and serves as a coach for Roots clients and assists them in getting physical and mental health services. Harris said he is happy to have work he’s proud to do. “I asked God to [let me] be of service to someone, so I’m totally blessed to get that job,” he said.

Now that he is on the path to reintegrating himself into society, he has some advice for other families who are separated by incarceration. “Communication, man,” he said. “You always want to get in contact. You want to hear that voice. Not through text. You want to call your family members.”

You can see more photos from Community Works programs here.

1 Comment

  1. […] You can learn more about the effect incarceration has on families here. […]

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