Families find encouragement in a world of critics

by Annette Lewis

Over 14 million men and women are arrested every year in the United States. Drugs, prostitution, murder, rapes - guilty and not guilty. Inmates soon loose their names and are now known by their state number. High fences, cement walls and steel bars are their scenery, what they now call home. They have traded their king size bed for a bunk, cell phones for hand written letters and now real human contact is scarce.

Many inmates soon receive their fate, months to serve, years or maybe even decades. As they learn to cope with their future and what their life will be like, family members try to come to terms in how their lives have changed. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers and sisters, sometimes seem to be at a loss in such a time of confusion and need.

Parents are at a loss, sometimes blaming themselves of their children's actions, siblings try to understand why their role models chose what they did. Spouses now have to consume the household on their own financially and physically while children sometimes act out to retaliate. Both the inmate and the family members are lost in the path that they are now on, not knowing where to turn, who to trust and what to expect. In a world of critics, support groups for loved ones of inmates seems to be a chore to find.

Stephanie Gonzales, 25, has been married to her husband, John, who is serving a 15-year sentence at a Texas state prison, for four years, three of which he has spent behind bars. Gonzales says the first month is when it really sank in that he was gone, "It was indescribable. I can only compare it to the way a child might feel in a moment in frustration. I wanted to throw myself on the floor and scream and cry until someone came to comfort me." At the time she didn't know anyone else experiencing the same loneliness, feeling of being lost and unsure of the next step. While her family suggested divorce in the beginning Gonzales says it was never an option, "For better or worse, til death do us part, I made a promise to him and I was absolutely not going to break it." Struggling with getting outside support, she relied on her father and brother who were supportive but just don't understand what being labeled a "prison wife" entails that is until she found a page on Facebook.

She stumbled across Free Jail and Prison T-Shirt Giveaway a page liked by over 1,000 people and is much more than its title. Parents, siblings, wives, children, nieces and nephews all meet on one page that has seemed to become a safe haven. "When I came across the page and all the amazing ladies on it, it was refreshing to me," Gonzales says.

While Gonzales found fellow wives that she could relate to Darcy Vargas found other mothers in her situation. Her 25-year-old son has been in prison for 4.5 years with a 15-year sentence. Vargas first questioned herself if she did something wrong in raising him for her son to have ended up in what she calls a "hell hole."

A place where members can share their ups and downs, seek support and offer encouragement everyone finds new friends and soon become family. "Aside from being able to reach out with one wall post and getting 10 responses from women who are going though the same thing, it has opened my eyes and made me appreciate the small things we do have, some of the things I took for granted before. Jails and prisons are different everywhere and there are many women dealing with rules, regulations and situations far more complicated than my own," says Gonzales. Vargas has found support in other groups as well and says she stays supportive by looking at the big picture. "You can't always dwell on all the crap," she says. "No matter what God throws at you good or bad just deal with it and get on the next. Do I have my down days, yep. Do I cry, yep. Then I shake it off and say thank you God now on the next item."

The encouragement and support seems to be key in a situation no one ever wishes to be in, and the amazing part is how supportive members are. Like Gonzales a wife that hasn't seen her husband in over a month and has no idea when the next time she will be able to and phone calls don't exist she continues to offer her kind words to other wives, mothers and members seeking support. "I love getting up everyday and seeing what everyone is doing and what's going on with everyone," says Vargas. "Since all of my kids have moved out I have been kinda lost, I have a purpose now. That feels good again!"

Free Jail and Prison T-Shirt Giveaway is a part of JailExchange.com, a site where people can search facilities, inmates, read current news on the issues, a one stop shop for every detail of incarceration. The Facebook page also does exactly what it's title explains, gives away free jail and prison t-shirts. Active members of the page are eligible to win a shirt, which at least two are given away daily, each personal and customized to whatever the winner wants. The shirts are worn by many showing support for their loved one who is currently incarcerated. The shirts have united these women and yet their experiences have made them family.

1 comment

  1. I appreciate that you wrote this article Annette...it means a lot to so many of us and I just wish more people out there could understand what we as families go through when a loved one goes to prison!


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