But there's also a whole range of disenfranchised grief surrounding the prison experience. My partner went to prison at a very young age and basically grew up there. For 13 years, starting at the age of 19, he was locked up. During this time, as he matured, he frequently thought about the experiences he was missing out on, the relationships he might have had, etc. He basically had to grieve over and come to terms with the "loss" of his twenties. Other inmates, who are incarcerated at a more mature age, may grieve the fact that their children are growing up without them, that their parents may die while they're incarcerated, etc. In our culture, viewing this as a grieving process seems odd to most people. Our attitude toward inmates is that they could have chosen to live in a way that would not have resulted in incarceration and that they've gotten what they deserve, if we think of them as thinking, feeling humans at all. So the experience of the inmate is one instance of disenfranchised grief.
Another type of disenfranchised grief related to the prison system is the experience of the families of prisoners. This is another thing that people don't tend to be either interested in or empathetic about. The emotional, financial, and social burdens carried by the families of inmates are often devastating. And the stigma that surrounds the prison system prevents them from getting the sympathy, understanding, and assistance that would make the experience more bearable.
This week the one-woman play Doin' Time, by Ashley Lucas was presented here on campus, and it explores the experiences of inmates families. Some of the topics Lucas touches on are the loss of a spouse or child to the prison system, the difficulty of suddenly being plunged into single-parenthood, the economic burdens carried by the families as a result of restrictive visiting policies, the economic burden placed on families via the exploitive commissary system, the grief over not being allowed to touch or hug your loved one during visits, and the need for the remaining parent to shelter their children from the stigma surrounding incarceration. Lucas presented these issues by taking on the roles of different people throughout the play, such as a wife and mother who misses her husband and works three jobs to support her kids, a wife whose husband sends her divorce papers because he believes that she deserves better than to remain married to him, a preacher who works with prisoners and exhorts others not to undervalue them, a gay Chicano grad student whose family can relate better to the lives of his brothers and uncles who are in prison than to his life as an academic, a little girl whose presence helps alleviate her mother's grief, etc. Each character is loosely based on people Lucas encountered while researching the experiences of the families of inmates, and the characters are powerfully portrayed.
The silence surrounding the prison experience and the disenfranchised grief it produces are important topics that ought to be frequently considered and discussed in order to bring about changes in the cultural attitudes we take toward inmates and their families. Even being able to be more open about the experience and share it without fearing any resulting judgment and stigma would help ameliorate the grief and hardships faced by the loved ones of inmates. And shifting cultural attitudes toward inmates in a way that results in a more compassionate and humanistic view of them would bring about changes in the way the prison industrial complex operates, sentencing criteria, treatment and educational options, and the war on drugs. It seems like a huge task to take on, but you have to start somewhere.