Thursday, March 12, 2009

Disenfranchised Grief

I've written about disenfranchised grief before, and the topic remains fascinating to me. To quote myself (because I'm just that lazy): "disenfranchised grief is grief over a loss that is not conventionally acknowledged or socially acceptable in your culture." In the earlier post I discussed the loss of an unborn child, a pet, an ex-lover or spouse, a partner in an unacknowledged relationship, etc.

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.


  1. THis is an interesting post. I'm curious about the phrase "prison industrail complex." I've heard it before, and wonder where it came from and what it encompasses.

  2. LetThemEatCake3/14/2009

    I wonder if there's any publicly funded grief counselling available for prisoner's families? I imagine it would be too much to ask to provide grief counselling for the inmates themselves.

  3. Lizzay3/16/2009

    I used to occasionally volunteer in my old church's prison ministry, and they offered services to inmate's families, like help signing up for social services to meet a shortfall in income, a bulletin board where inmates families from various communities could find other families to carpool with for visiting days, etc. But I wasn't aware of any grief counseling. On the other hand, the clergy members who visited the inmates would talk with them about anything that was on their minds, and I'm sure some of them expressed their grief over missing their families. Sometimes just having a neutral person to talk to whose conversations with you is protected and confidential helps, even if they're not a certified counselor.

  4. @ Kayla
    The term "prison industrial complex" is commonly used to refer to all the groups that have a financial interest in prisons and in maintaining the status quo/increasing the number of incarcerated individuals. So everyone from private prison companies to prison guard unions (incredibly powerful in some states) to prison vendors and healthcare providers to construction and security companies that primarily work on prisons are included here. Angela Davis has written some fabulous stuff on the prison industrial complex, and Critical Resistance is an activist group that works to abolish the PIC system.