Courtesy Chris Dankovich

The situation, simply put: for families of the incarcerated, life is brutal. Sad. Devastating to family structure and closeness. Difficult financially. Painful. Wrenching, forcing families to drive six hours on Sundays to visit with no gas money. Getting rejected for a visit for some technical violation of clothing or inadequate identification or an expired drivers license. Dads or moms never able to celebrate birthdays or holidays with their kids. Parents choosing to celebrate children’s birthdays and holidays  in prison without decorations or cake or cookies. Or the rest of the family.

Or not counting the right number of visits and driving for hours and not being allowed to visit because of too many visits. Or being called out of the visiting room because you forgot to roll up your window all the way, so the visit is terminated. Or overcrowding on holidays and having to end a visit too soon. Waiting in the waiting room for an average of 45 minutes before you get to be searched. Being subjected to the indignities of taking off your shoes and socks and being patted down, sometimes gently, sometimes not. Of watching nobody at the front desk caring enough to process you when they have nothing better to do. Of other families in the visiting room, rarely talking to each other. Isolation. Healthcare issues for your son that aren’t  resolved. Watching people with hernias not get medical attention.

Watching the food gradually decline. Prisoners having to supplement  food and hygiene items from their personal job … like the old movies of third world prisons. Watching boredom for those you love as the structure of their life. Watching lack of programming create more boredom. Watching overcrowding taking place. And when it can’t possibly get more crowded, seeing it get more overcrowded. And more. And more.

Watching dangerous populations thrown together. Watching Legislative budgets create still more crowding, even poorer food and even less decent medical care creating ever more  dangerous conditions. And watching the response to dangerous conditions be to create more harsh policies.

That’s what families see. If they can even visit their loved one. If they can even afford the exorbitant phone rates. If they’re not ripped apart. If the children of prisoners can even get in and visit. Because visiting hours aren’t convenient for families. And visiting places aren’t convenient for families. Long drives. Loved ones housed up to 12 hours away. Long waits in the lobby.

Listening to television talking about human rights abuses in other countries. Seeing worse abuses right here in one’s home state. Seeing Al Jazeera write about human rights abuses in Michigan prisons here. A journalist imprisoned in the Mideast, saying American prisons are far worse than the third world prisons and meaning it.

The United States being the only country besides Somalia who has never signed the U.N. Children’s Rights Treaty. Wondering how it is that other countries treat prisoners more humanely than we treat our own. The U.S. is supposed to be the greatest country in the world? Guardians of freedom and human rights? Then why haven’t we signed the U.N. Children’s Rights Treaty?

Hearing beliefs about America shattered. Fighting about universal healthcare for our citizens on the streets outside the prisons. And denying decent healthcare for those inside. Stories headlined … animal rights offenders? Are animals more important than  human beings? Hungry and homeless? Prisoners not having $.10 cent / hour jobs, and wanting the 10 cent jobs to supplement their institutional 1800 calorie starch and fat-laden diet, with fruit and vegetables a rarity.

Seeing men and women bored with nothing to do and wanting jobs. Even wanting the $.10 per hour jobs that are in there. And less than half the people able to get jobs those $.10 an hour jobs. And not being able to afford hygiene items like Tampax or Kleenex or cough drops. Or food to stop the growling bellies because dinner is at 4:30 pm and bedtime is at 11 pm. Or not having the dollar for the occasional, very occasional treat. And those who do have $.10 per hour jobs, working 16 hours for a can of pop.

Watching your loved one go through that.

And gratitude that I can supply things like food and books, that I can visit. Yet seeing that 80% of the people locked up in prison never get visits. Nor money for food and hygiene from home. Because nobody cares enough or the family is poor or addicted to substances deemed more important.


Courtesy: Chris Dankovich

The isolation of prisoners. Their suicides. Their rapes. Watching my 15-year-old child afraid of rape. Because it is a very real thing. A very probable thing.

Experiencing these things. Watching families of  loved ones in the waiting room…the endless waiting room… visit for the first time. Lost. Having no clue that they need a dollar bill to buy a card so they can buy their loved one food in the visiting room. Not having a one dollar bill. And nobody having change… so they have to leave to get a dollar.

Watching the legislature getting more restrictive. And making things worse — without ever visiting prisons. Instead of doing the right thing and easing the overcrowding, spending millions for cameras as a solution to rape. Knowing that clever people just wear masks and that nobody can watch 300 video feeds in real time (nor does anyone try). 

And trying to tell newspapers and legislators and neighbors hoping for outrage at treating people like this, thinking they might care. Lack of healthcare. And how wrong it is to lock children up forever with no chance of being looked at again for a possibility of redemption.

Volunteering to work and present workshops. Volunteering to help. Writing the story I don’t want to write.

That’s how this affects some families…

At least this family…  A family that split apart like a vase shattering one day in April 10 years ago. Divorce. Estrangement. People who were once close family members avoiding the subject of imprisonment. Not asking about my son. Not writing him. Not ever visiting him. Learning that no one cares about prisons and prisoners; it’s not a warm fuzzy subject.

There are no simple answers, except helping others.

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I’ve visited  my son over 600 times in 10 years. Learned to facilitate  writing workshops with incarcerated men, instead of vacationing in Costa  Rica. Volunteered at the prison art show in Ann Arbor. Met with legislators to try to get decent healthcare and sufficient decent  food and convenient visiting times. Just like others do when they see wrong. Many others.

Most of us realize that as bad as we families of prisoners hurt, families of the victims of the crimes hurt even more.

We know  that evidence shows  longer punishments don’t deter crime. And nonetheless, we see laws passed contrary to established data. We realize that being tough on crime isn’t the same as being smart about crime. That the job is to deter crime and not imprison people.

These are some thoughts about what it’s like to be a family member of a prisoner.

The process is a lot like watching a favorite antique vase shatter. And picking up the pieces, gluing it back together and telling yourself it’s as good as new.

James Dankovich is the father of Chris Dankovich, one of‘s Contributing Writers and the First Place Winner in our National Prison Writing Contest