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Disenfranchised Grief and Support Groups for Families of Incarcerated Individuals

--By Allegra Pocinki, July 22, 2022

Today, approximately 1.9 million Americans are incarcerated in a variety of penal institutions, including state and federal prisons, juvenile corrections facilities, and local jails. Approximately 90 percent of these incarcerated individuals are men. However, these numbers barely touch the additional millions of women who are also impacted by incarceration: family members—especially mothers, sisters, grandmothers, partners, and children.

While many academic research studies have examined the impact of mass incarceration on the daily lives of wives and children, very little is known about support groups for families with an incarcerated loved one. Discussions around the effects of mass incarceration in the U.S. too often overlook how removing a significant number of men from a community affects the family members who remain in the community. Those studies that do focus on the effects of incarceration on family members tend to only look at the support they give to the incarcerated once they are released and how that support can contribute to reduced recidivism. Furthermore, studies on the type of support received (or not) by families often focus on one specific type of relationship, like partners or mothers of incarcerated children, and these studies were conducted outside of the United States.

As a doctoral student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I have been working on multiple projects to learn more about the impact of mass incarceration on families, as well as how COVID-19 has exacerbated already-existing issues within the prison system. Throughout 2021, I conducted virtual interviews with 13 respondents across the United States who created their own support groups for families of incarcerated individuals or are executive leaders in these organizations. I found that many of these support groups are able to provide additional assistance to families who might not be receiving the type of support they are looking for from their already-existing social networks. These groups are essential because many of them work to reframe the grief families experience by reconceptualizing what it means to grieve in a context not recognized by others as a “typical” loss.

I argue that the experience of incarceration can be considered a situation of disenfranchised grief: a loss that is not socially acknowledged or supported as deserving of grief. Society’s reluctance to accept incarceration as a loss makes it extremely difficult for family members to grieve, leading to increased social isolation and shame. Support groups for families of incarcerated individuals provide the essential work of helping them re-enfranchise their grief, name its causes, and find solutions. These groups work to reframe incarceration as a situation that not only impacts the incarcerated person, but also creates a “hidden sentence” for their loved ones on the outside. Perhaps the most common reframing message support groups provide to their members is the reminder that they are not alone. Importantly, these groups do not attempt to reframe a family member’s initial reaction to incarceration, but rather provide the message that others have had the same experience, thereby addressing the isolation and stigma felt by family members. This messaging is crucial for those who feel like they are serving a sentence in their own way because it renders their feelings and experiences of shame, isolation, and stigma in a way that is legible for others who may not fully understand the widespread impact of mass incarceration.

Ultimately, connecting with strangers who share the experience of incarceration can be more beneficial for mental wellbeing than relying solely on already-existing support networks. The findings of this study support similar literature on the role of support groups among those with stigmatizing health diagnoses, like cancer or severe mental illness. This study also suggests that families are better equipped to help their incarcerated family member when they can acquire tools to enfranchise their grief, process the loss, and learn how to advocate for the rights of their incarcerated loved ones. Support group organizations might not be able to fully change the experience of “doing time on the outside,” but they certainly provide ways to reconceptualize what that “time” could or should look like.


About the Author: Allegra Pocinki (left) is a DC Project Connect Board Member. She has conducted research related to: “COVID-19 and New Jersey Prisons.” Ms. Pocinki has also conducted research on the opioid epidemic in the U.S., with a particular focus on heroin and prescription opioids.

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