Assisting Prisoners Who Are Coping With Grief
“Why did this happen now?” “If I had only been there!” “I can never forgive myself.” These are laments of sorrow and grief often heard by anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one. For those who are incarcerated, the torment of grief is generally compounded by an overwhelming sense of guilt.
One prisoner’s mother was killed in a car accident when she went out to get a prescription filled for her husband. The grief-stricken inmate repeated over and over that if he had not been in prison, his mother would not have been killed. Before he was incarcerated, he had been the one to do the night-time errands for his parents. If he had not been in prison, he reasoned, he would have been the one going out to the pharmacy that night and his mother’s life would have been spared.
Another prisoner, serving a life sentence, had not seen his mother for years when he learned she had died. The family had never been able to raise enough money for her to visit. Now, all hope of ever seeing her again was gone. He was grief stricken and had difficulty coping.
In yet one more case, an inmate felt helpless when he learned his brother was dying of AIDS. Their mother was having trouble caring for the ill son and the prisoner felt tremendous guilt. In addition to grieving for his brother, he grieved over his inability to be home to help his mother. His sorrow over not being able to be with his brother during his brother’s dying days was overwhelming. He wanted to take some of the burden of off his mother, but was of course unable to do that.
Grief of Prison Inmates Over Death of Loved Ones
Grief of prison inmates is compounded by the circumstances in which they find themselves. They essentially have to grieve alone. They are not near loved ones who are also grieving. If they are able to arrange to attend the funeral, they have to pay for it and then, they attend in shackles. Many who have attended funerals in shackles regret it. They still are unable to be with their family members and therefore, are still unable to participate in the grieving process.
The prison experience makes it almost impossible for inmates to go through the normal grieving process. Since they are removed from the rituals surrounding death, like viewings, funerals, memorial services and mingling with other family members, they have trouble accepting that the loved one has really died.
Inmates learn early in their incarceration experience not to show emotion or pain. They learn not to appear weak and not to trust anyone. Other inmates keep their distance. It is not a positive thing for them to involve themselves in another’s business. Many inmates have previously dealt with loss by self-medicating. That is likely not available to them and inmates end up with complicated grief patterns. They may become depressed, agitated or self-destructive. Some become angry and lash out at those near them. They need basic grief counseling to help them cope with their sorrow.
Programs for Correctional Officers to Help Them Help Inmates With the Grieving Process
Many state and federal prisons now recognize the importance of helping inmates with their grief. Chaplains and correctional officers are taught how to recognize those who have experienced personal losses. They are taught how to understand the effects grief may have on inmates and learn how to help them through their stress. Relias Academy is one resource that offers an online continuing education course for correctional officers designed to help them help inmates who have experienced profound losses and who are in the throes of grief. The CE course, titled “Grief and Loss in the Correctional Setting,” focuses not only on the grief experienced over the loss of a loved one, but also on other losses as well. Many inmates have grief over the loss of their freedom or loss of interacting in their former communities and with friends and family members.
Specific Coping Suggestions for Inmates
Some coping suggestions for prisoners made by a group of prison counselors include the following:
- If the prison has any counseling groups, join one. It will give you the opportunity to express your feelings and talk about your loss in a safe setting. You will also be able to listen to how others in your same situation have coped with their grief. You may learn something new that may help you.
- Talk to the chaplain even if you are not religious. You may find a correctional officer with a sympathetic ear. There may be a staff person or social worker with whom you can schedule an appointment.
- Write down your feelings, your pain, your anger, your grief. Write about the person who has died. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or complete sentences. This is for you. No one else. You may want to throw away the paper after you are finished. If writing is difficult for you, maybe you want to draw in a way that expresses your feelings.
- You may find that meditation helps you.
- If you cannot sleep, ask for an appointment with a nurse or doctor. You need to get proper rest in order not to be overcome by grief.
The loss of a loved one leaves a deep wound that takes time to heal. It is a personal experience and each person, including those who are incarcerated, reacts differently. It is a lonely experience even when the person grieving is amid crowds of people. Although no one else can truly understand another one’s grief, it is important for all people, particularly those who are in prison, to ride through the rollercoaster of grief so they can cope with their sorrow in positive ways.