This Lent, we are going to share with you excerpts from Keeping Hope: A Resource for Families and Friends of the Incarcerated
Written by Karen Henning Heuberger and Ron Zeilinger

“Moments of Grace: Spirituality and Faith”

While having a loved one in prison is one of the most difficult situations you may have in life, there can be positive experiences in the midst of it all. Most of the families interviewed mentioned faith as a mainstay for getting through the challenges. Maintaining or developing a spiritual life during this experience can affect its impact. No, it won’t make everything easy, but moments of grace can shine through.

Effects of Spirituality
Bringing a sense of spirituality to the experience of having an incarcerated family member or close friend can help you and that person restructure your priorities and help you both make changes in your lifestyle.

Three womanFor You – When you bring the lens of personal faith to the experience, it can help you look at things with an overarching perspective. You see not only the suffering of today, but the long-term effects of the situation. For example, through incarceration, a prisoner with an addiction is taken out of his or her normal situation and put into programs that will address the addiction. Healing can occur and have a long-term positive impact on his or her life. Believing that good can come out of a difficult situation can move you beyond fear. It can give you hope and courage.

Spirituality can also lead you to look outside of your situation. It may draw out your compassion and understanding in ways you haven’t known before – with your inmate, others, and yourself. It can make you want to move beyond a difficult situation and make something constructive flow from it. It may prompt you to reach out to others and have a positive impact on the world. You may choose to be a source of blessing to others and find yourself blessed.Woman praying with hands folded in prayer

Because of the serious to extreme sacrifices you may have to make in your day-to-day life during this situation, it may help you rely on God more and realize what you truly “need.” You may become more attuned to the good in this world because the little things are even more precious. Being grateful for all the positives during this time is important.

Prayer is also important. It can help you make crucial decisions and help you accept others’ decisions and challenging outcomes. It can help you accept “what is” rather than wishing things were different or worrying about it all. If you are a person of faith, you may feel that all of this is happening for a reason. You may not know the reason, but believe good will come out of it. If you have fallen away from your faith, you may find that the only way to survive is to “get back to God” where you will find comfort.

For Your Loved One – Helping your incarcerated friend or family member grow in faith can foster spiritual rehabilitation, which can have a real impact on his or her not returning to prison.

As O’Connor, Brooks, and Sprauer suggested in their study of religious programming and spirituality with inmates, “Awakening the religious or spiritual domain in a person brings additional hope, encouragement and resources.” (“Spirituality, Religion and What Works: Religious Outcomes This Side of Heaven”,

prisoner in prayerPrayer can help your loved one become more introspective and come to a place where he or she realizes it was a horrible mistake to commit a crime. When the inmate can get to a place where he or she is willing to admit why, accept responsibility, and face the consequences, real growth is taking place. One’s faith can help him or her reconsider a new lifestyle, find strength to make changes, and start on a new path to wholeness and a productive life.

Because inmates deal with a lot of shame and guilt, faith in a loving and forgiving God can also bring them significant healing. If your family member or friend is having trouble forgiving him or herself for the crime, knowing and understanding that God is more willing to forgive than he or she is willing to ask for forgiveness is a comfort. This truth may move the person to the point where he or she can accept forgiveness. Knowing and accepting that God’s love is unconditional can help overcome low self-esteem, self-hatred, past offenses, past abuse and many other issues. It usually doesn’t happen immediately, but as the prisoner’s faith grows and as you model God’s love and forgiveness, your loved one may slowly find the courage to love him or herself.

Inmates who came from a place of faith and spirituality can help bring that sense of love and healing to others in the institution. Praying with fellow inmates and seeking out the lonely and depressed or just being kind can be invaluable toward developing a calming atmosphere. It colors the experience of incarceration and helps them use that time constructively.

man and woman holding h andsFor Your Relationship – When you bring faith to the relationship, you and your family member or friend can bond in ways you may not have in the past. Praying together, sharing Scripture, talking about how God has been present in each of your lives can put you on common ground and give the relationship a boost. As you both grow spiritually, you often will grow closer as well.

If the offender is your spouse, it may help you realize how important the marriage is to each of you as you make the commitment to continue to support each other. This situation can be a real test of your relationship, but can also teach you to trust each other again and bring you closer together as a couple.

Man and woman outside prison gatesAs you make plans with the prisoner for release, prayer can help guide and reassure you. You can both take your decisions to prayer, and then discuss where each of you feels God is leading. Together you can then make the decisions you need to make. Taking it to prayer first can help you be confident your decisions are divinely guided.

In whatever way spirituality may come into play for you and your loved one during the incarceration, it can transform the experience from simply an embarrassment and burden to a time of growth. It can help you re-prioritize your life and take pleasure in all the simple gifts God gives. You may even strengthen your relationship and bring peace to each other during a time of uncertainty. God can use this experience to bring good in your life. As one family member said, “Anything to God’s glory”. And with God, you are never alone on this journey.


Those Who Know…

I got to know my son on a spiritual level. We became very close while he was incarcerated through very in-depth sharing about his problems, his plans for the future and life in general, and our spiritual beliefs.

God was always present. He is the one that gave me the strength and courage to continue to live my life, to stay positive, and to be able to be there for my son.

Giving it to the Lord has helped me to get through it and will continue to do so.

When he’s out and on a healthy path…then there will be peace.

Most important is my husband found his faith.

Truthfully, I have not found peace. It does help though to do daily devotions and bible reading with my husband.

His dad and I became reacquainted with an adult son and have remained close.

We pray (a lot!).

God kept her safe from others and herself.




Lenten Reflections Blog series


This Lent, we are going to share with you excerpts from Keeping Hope: A Resource for Families and Friends of the Incarcerated
Written by Karen Henning Heuberger and Ron Zeilinger

“Being There: Supporting Your Loved One THROUGH RELEASE”

When your loved one is nearing the time for release, supporting him or her takes a shift. While you may still support your family member or friend in the day-to-day living in prison, you will also need to help prepare the person for rejoining society. As your friend or family member gets closer to release, things may get harder since he or she may be feeling anxious or frustrated. You may want to make a list with him or her of any worries and fears about leaving prison, whether the person is “coming home” or moving into a new place. If your loved one is moving back in with you, talk about each of your expectations – long before the leaving prison with a box in hands

At least six months prior to your loved one’s release, you want the person start creating a plan. He or she will need to find work and a place to live – located within the limits designated by parole.

Finding a place to worship can be a source of support as well. If there is a program that will provide a sponsor for your loved one, that can be a great help in the process of transitioning back into society. If your family member or friend wants to go back to school, help him or her get registered for classes even before the release. Set a timeline for yourself and your loved one to make sure you have everything in place before the release. If your loved one is incarcerated out of state, you may need to get the parole transferred if he or she wants to move back with or near you.

If the person is a sex offender, the parolee will have more restrictions regarding distance from schools, parks, playgrounds or other places where children are present. The person will have to sign up on the sex offender registry. This is a public registry and can be easily found on the Internet. Anyone can locate the place of residence of a sex offender until his or her name is removed from the offenders registry

Talk to the parole officer ahead of time (be patient, but persistent) to find out what will be expected, as well as what you may need to do to assist your paroled loved one. If the parolee is a minor, you will have a special responsibility to support your child after release. But either way, there are rules and regulations for your loved one as well as for you as a support person.

For example, you will need to report anything that looks like suspicious activity to the authorities. Expectations may be different from one parole officer to another, so find out ahead of time everything you can. Your loved one must to be willing to work with you in the planning process to make sure the transition goes as smoothly as possible. You may face many roadblocks along the way, so you will need to be determined and stay positive as you help find housing, work, schooling, etc. While you are doing what you can for your loved one, you also need to make sure you do not do too much to manage the person’s life. He or she must become adjusted to being a responsible citizen.

people sitting at a table in conversation

If you are concerned about your loved one’s release because the person may be a danger to himself or herself or others because of mental illness or another such concern, work with the state to arrange a hearing so the person can be released to a transitional facility or to a state hospital. That institution will then evaluate him or her every ninety days.

man holding a childAs you support your loved one, take care of yourself too. Your loved one’s transition will be your transition also if the person is moving back into your home with you. You may have concerns about how his or her being home again will affect your other relationships, or about how your life is changing from the visiting and time away, to now having an ex-offender back in your home. It will take a lot of adjustment and patience.


From Those Who Know…

Stay connected! Write often! Don’t send sympathy cards and letters. Send stuff that will make them laugh and smile.

Write to your loved one right away, let them know you are still there for them.

I can’t help feeling disgusted with him, but I know it’s his mental illness.

Answer their phone calls – be at home when they call because they don’t get to call that often and they call collect – accept the call.

Remember that no matter what they tell you, they are in as much or more anguish as you are.

Stand behind them 100% because their freedom is taken away from them for the time they’re sitting in jail.

Every case will be different but you are the one who is trying to get your loved one home and you might as well face it, you won’t get help from the state.




Lenten Reflections Blog series


This Lent, we are going to share with you excerpts from Keeping Hope: A Resource for Families and Friends of the Incarcerated
Written by Karen Henning Heuberger and Ron Zeilinger

“Being There: Supporting Your Loved One”

Don’t ever give up on them. Hate the sin but not the sinner.woman and man in prison visiting room sitting face to face

One of the key ingredients in successful rehabilitation for inmates is family involvement. As the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation asserts, “Programs already in place in our state…show an enormous rehabilitative benefit from family interaction.” (Reform and Inform Newsletter, 2007) Furthermore, former Wisconsin DOC Secretary Gary Hamblin stated that “helping inmates maintain contact with their families while they are incarcerated also has an impact on recidivism and decreases their chances of re-incarceration.” (

Woman holding lettersWhen your loved one goes to prison, you must make the decision if you are going to be committed to supporting him or her or not. Once you have decided to support the person, truly commit. Don’t be lukewarm. The more you can show healthy support, the better off he or she will be both during and after incarceration. Do not give up on him or her, especially if this is a first-time offense. Look past what happened and remember the person you love.

For some, the commitment to support your loved one may not happen right away. It may take a sincere letter from him or her as an indication of real change, an effort on the part of the prisoner, or just finding a common ground as you rebuild your relationship. But even if the reconnection comes near the end of the sentence, it is not too late. Doing what you can to support the person at any point of the incarceration can make a difference.

Because your loved one doesn’t truly know what is going on in your life, he or she has to completely trust you and the information you give. Do what you can to build that trust. Be consistent with writing, visiting, talking on the phone. Be encouraging. Make sure the inmate’s name is called often when the mail is handed out in the facility. Send something extra around the holidays. Send pictures, anything with color, things that are allowed but not seen in a prison. Demonstrate your support and that you haven’t forgotten about your relationship. Keep the communication open and flowing.

Helping support your loved one’s faith-life is another important aspect of his or her rehabilitation. Pray together when you can, do bible studies together, and share your faith experiences – all one’s spiritual life. This can help you, too. Both of you growing in faith together not only helps you bond, but helps both of you cope and develop in healthy ways.father and two boys sitting in a waiting room

Supporting your family member or friend involves both emotional and financial support. People who don’t have anyone to help financially are more isolated. They have no money for personal things that can be purchased in the commissary. So if you can, make sure there is money in the prisoner’s account for the phone and the commissary. Often, there are easy online methods for putting money into your loved one’s account. For example, in Texas there is e-CommDirect ( This service allows you to make online purchases from the commissary which will be delivered to your loved one, or put money directly into your loved one’s account online. Similar to this is JPay ( Available in more than 30 states, JPay allows you to not only send money to your loved one’s account, but also emails and music. Other services are video visits if the facility participates in this option.

man and woman sitting at a computer looking confusedEducate yourself on any conditions your loved one may have, whether they are mental or physical illness, or an addiction. The more you understand, the more you can support him or her and the more you can advocate if needed. You may also need to educate yourself on legal issues, especially if your loved one plans to make an appeal. While there is some legal help available inside the prisons, you may be the best advocate in your family member or friend’s case.

Advocating for Your Loved One
Advocating for a prisoner can take various approaches. It depends on each person. One way is simply being the person’s advocate within your family. You may need to speak up for him or her with members of the family who are not so supportive. You may not get them to start writing or visiting, but just helping family members understand the situation better can promote an attitude of reconciliation or at least tolerance.

Advocating within the system may present more formal involvement. At the time of sentencing, you may be able to give input as to what you think your loved one needs as part of his or her program (i.e. drug treatment, anger management, etc.) Some states have councils made up of inmate families to help resolve issues during incarceration, such as the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) Family Council.

Otherwise, you may simply have to be willing to take a stand on your own. For example, your advocacy may revolve around a condition your loved one has. If you are not happy with the medical care the prisoner receives, you may need to speak up on his or her behalf. There is a usually a process set up in the system – either at the correctional facility or at the state Department of Corrections level — to make a complaint, but if you are not getting the response you need, you may need to contact the ombudsman or other appropriate person in the system. If your loved one has mental illness, you may have to advocate for the person just to get needed treatment, whether it is counseling or medication. Keep asking “who else might help with this?” until you reach the right person.

If you need to advocate for your loved one on a legal level, i.e. making an appeal, you may feel out of your league. But there are options for getting legal help. Often the prison has a legal expert who can give advice. You can also do your own research. Some organizations, such as The Innocence Network, will provide free assistance in certain types of cases. More generally, there is some form of a Legal Aid Society ready to provide help.




Lenten Reflections Blog series


This Lent, we are going to share with you excerpts from Keeping Hope: A Resource for Families and Friends of the Incarcerated
Written by Karen Henning Heuberger and Ron Zeilinger

“Coping: Finding Support”

Finding support when you have a loved one who is incarcerated is not always easy. If you are afraid to tell others, you may carry the burden alone. But if you can reach out, you may find there are many sources of support that you didn’t know were there.

Family and FriendsFamily group

If you have good relationships with those in your family, they can be an immediate source of support. Since your family is likely already aware of your situation, that will save you the process of having to share your story initially. Family members, though they deal with things differently, often have a common history with the offender and you can share on a deeper level more quickly. There will be a better sense of understanding, especially if they have been involved in your life and the life of your loved one.

If your relationship with family is strained, close friends may prove a better option. Friends who have journeyed with you through the trial and sentencing process can be invaluable as you deal with the time of incarceration. Opening up to them, honestly sharing your feelings about the situation and your loved one, positive or negative, can have a great healing effect. As mentioned in Chapter One, you may want to choose carefully whom you tell at first. Choose someone who has proven to be open and supportive and has previously held your deepest feelings as sacred.

Church Community

prayer groupIf you belong to a church community, talking with your pastor may be a good starting point. Not only should the pastor be able to listen to you, but should also be able to give you some guidance in your situation and help you find the resources you need. Just being involved in a small faith community can be a support to you. It can be a community where you receive prayer and acceptance. But there may also be a specific “families of the incarcerated” program in your parish or diocese. Or your pastor may even be able to put you in contact with another family in your parish who also has a loved one in prison. Starting on common ground can help you form a support network. Hearing about how another family deals with their situation may give you ideas about what might help you.

Your pastor should also be able to connect you with resources that meet your physical/financial needs as well. With the financial burdens of having a loved one in prison, you may need to find help with rent or utilities. You may need food, clothing, or even school supplies for your children. Church parishes are great sources of such support.

If you do not already have a church community, you may want to seek one. Finding one where you feel you’ve “come home” is important, especially as you look for support and acceptance during this time in your life.


Man Praying

Many family members said that without prayer and faith, they wouldn’t have made it through their experience. Staying positive, holding on to hope, and taking everything to God has made a big difference for them. Don’t hold back on your real feelings when you approach God. Go as you are, being honest with all that is inside of you. Letting it out with God may help relieve you of some of the emotional burden. Using prayer and meditation to find peace and maintain an inner calm can help you tolerate the trials that arise in daily living.

Sometimes just increasing your knowledge can help you cope with the situation in a more productive way. Understanding the correctional system better, or the crime that was committed, can help you deal with what happened. If your loved one has an addiction or any form of mental illness, learning about these issues can help you understand your loved one better and can help you relate to him or her more constructively, especially when visiting. It can also help you more fully support him or her.

It may help you communicate with him or her in more meaningful ways and demonstrates that he or she still matters to you despite what has happened. Education not only helps you understand the situation and your loved one better, it can also help you understand yourself better. Learning about living as a family member of the incarcerated can help “normalize” your feelings. It can help you understand why you are feeling what you feel, and give you alternatives as to how to deal with your situation. Education can empower you as you move forward and face the challenges of having a loved one in prison.

CounselingTwo people sitting face to face with hands cropped
Beyond education, therapy can also empower you. Therapy with someone who is knowledgeable of your situation can help you tap your strengths as you deal with your burdens. A therapist can teach you skills that will help you in daily living as well as in your interactions with your loved one. Many therapists work on a sliding-fee-scale, so you can find someone within your financial means.

If your faith-life is important to you, spiritual or religious counseling may give you support as well. Religious counselors through churches may not be certified psychologists, but may help you draw on your faith to deal with hardships. They may help you look at your situation through the lens of faith.

Some programs set up for families of the incarcerated offer counseling as part of their services. The services may be for individuals or the family as a whole. In these programs, because they are geared for families of the incarcerated, counselors are well-versed in the issues facing such families and can often provide practical, proven ideas for dealing with the unique challenges you may face.

Retreats, getting away from your daily routine, can provide you with time to reflect, to have some quiet, and to draw a sense of peace and strength to deal with your challenges. They usually involve talks followed by activities to reinforce what you learn. Such retreats can be general, focusing on your own spiritual journey, or you can choose one that is focused on those whose loved ones are in prison. One example is Kairos Outside. While the Kairos program is for inmates, Kairos Outside was developed for women whose loved ones are incarcerated. One healing activity at this retreat is celebrating birthdays for the celebrations you so often miss with your loved one gone. Regardless of the specific activities though, retreats can help you realize life goes on. They can help you work through your feelings and connect with others. They can provide support in a safe atmosphere.



Lenten Reflections Blog series