By Evelyn V. Martínez
By the end of 2013, Massachusetts had 21,307 people under the jurisdiction of federal and state correctional authorities, according to a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Yet, supportive programs for relatives of those incarcerated were and continue to be few and far between.
Studies have shown that families with incarcerated individuals experience loss and trauma, but feel a sense of embarrassment and often refuse to disclose the location of their relatives. This makes it difficult for public officials to assess the demand for such programming.
“It’s not necessarily a publicly made available type of issue,” said Damian Martinez, who’s researched incarcerated individuals and the dynamics between their families.
“For many people who have a family member incarcerated, if you look in the research, many of them don’t advertise or want it to be publicly known that someone is incarcerated,” he said. “How then do you encourage people to collectively get together, to collectively bond, to be able to share their experiences together?”
Three non-profit organizations in Boston – VISIONS Inc., Span and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute – are working together to implement different parts of the Intergenerational Justice Program (IJP), a $457,000 grant that was first funded in October 2014 by the Executive Office of Public Service and Security with federal money from the Department of Justice.
IJP will work with inmates who were convicted of illegal gun possession and/or homicide six months before they are eligible for a parole hearing. In addition to working with the inmates, the program will also work with the families of the offenders and the victims.
“This is an innovative idea. It’s not something that people have done before. We certainly engage with victims all the time. We don’t normally engage with the offender’s families, so that’s new,” said Sheila Creaton Kelly, director for victims services at the Department of Correction (DOC) and the IJP grant manager.
Creaton Kelly oversees “mundane” tasks like budgeting and payroll, but she also makes sure that the DOC sends referrals to the three agencies.
Lyn Levy, the founder of Span, Inc., an organization with a mission to “assist people who are or have been in prison to achieve healthy, productive and meaningful lives,” said that she has received about a dozen letters from prisoners who would like to be part of IJP.
Levy explained that in the coming weeks she will go into prisons to meet the inmates, or “clients” as she calls them, who have written to her. At their first meeting, Levy will identify what their needs are and will begin planning for their parole hearing.
At the intake meeting Levy and her clients will identify the barriers they face. “A lot of people don’t have families left, which is a very sad thing,” said Levy, but that does not deter her from working with inmates. During the 38 years she has worked at Span, Inc. it is not uncommon for her to encounter “lifers,” inmates who are serving life sentences, whose families have died ahead of them or have moved on from them. The lifers have already served the minimum sentence of 15 years.
For the clients with families, Levy lets them decide their involvement. “We deal with it on a case-by-case kind of a basis,” she said.
One thing Levy knows for certain is reentry into society after long periods of incarceration is not easy. “It really is hard to make a generalization except to say that it is an extremely, extremely difficult transition to make. There is no way around that. It is going to be really, really tough.”
Inmates and Span, Inc. create “concrete” goals for life after prison. “You’re going to have to find employment, you’re going to have to manage your life. And that’s a pretty challenging thing for everybody to do–if you’ve been locked up for a while it’s a real challenge as well,” said Levy.
VISIONS, Inc., a training and consulting organization specializing in diversity and inclusion, provides training for all IJP participants. Training sessions teach participants to better understand their feelings. “The notion of emotional literacy doesn’t necessarily refer to ‘I’m more expressive.’ It’s really about knowing what I’m feeling and what I need for myself,” said Rick Pinderhughes, the associate director of administration and senior consultant at VISIONS, Inc.
The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute that “serves as a center of healing, teaching and learning for families and communities dealing with murder, trauma, grief and loss” also offers different modules of the Survivors Leadership Academy. The program is designed to “transform pain and anger into peace, power and action.”
SandTray/Worldplay is one of the healing techniques that The Peace Institute has adopted. In Sandtray/Worldplay each person creates a world in a tray of sand by using miniature objects.
Alexandra Raphael, program coordinator at the institute, said that touching the sand motivates nerves in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is affected by trauma, to bring forward memories and feelings. “When you experience trauma the ability to connect language to the experience can be difficult,” said Raphael.
In its introduction to the technique, the institute states that “As a picture can say more than a thousand words, a figure or scene can express feelings, emotions and conflicts that previously had no verbal language.”
And it is all a part of the IJP grant on helping the transition out of prison. “I do think that it is an interesting project,” said Creaton Kelly. “It’s something that really hasn’t been done, at least in this state, before. I like the fact that we’re looking at the whole picture and not just one subset.”