Why I Needed Family Visits While I Was Incarcerated

Why I Needed Family Visits While I Was Incarcerated

October 14, 2022 | Jose Reyna

Jose Reyna headshot

My personal experience of being locked up in juvenile hall, county jail, and the state Department of Juvenile Justice made me very passionate about family visits because all I ever really had in life and while incarcerated was my family. I am not the only person who feels this way—many people in my community feel the same.

While incarcerated, most of us suffered mental trauma being separated from our families. Phone calls and letters were never enough—they were more of an emotional tease than they were fulfilling. This type of contact tortures you mentally because you hear your family cry and suffer while on the phone, and you write them, but you cannot touch, hug, or reassure them that everything will be okay.

What made a difference were in-person family visits. That was more like soul food in a storm of agony. Everyone incarcerated suffers with mental and emotional stress, but the ones who get family visits tend to suffer way less than those who do not.

There’s a lot of research linked to the benefits of family visits. For example, the article “Is Visiting Prison to See Your Loved One a Good Idea?” says, “When people who are incarcerated get to see their families regularly, their stress and anxiety levels are lessened. They also engage in fewer incidents of violence while in prison.” In fact, any visit reduced the chance of reconviction of a felony by 13% and the chance of parole revocation by 25%, according to a 2012 study in the journal Corrections Today.

The negative effects of not having family visits while incarcerated have also been documented. In the ACES Too High News article, “California Advocates Press for Expansion of Visiting Rights to Incarcerated Loved Ones,” one mother remembers, “We were dumbfounded and had absolutely no idea what was going on and why on Earth we wouldn’t be able to hold our son for three years. It was one of the most traumatizing things we’ve ever had to go through.” About her son, she said, “He started to disappear. He just gave up hope and thought, ‘What the hell, I’m never going to see my parents again.’”

I experienced the negative effects personally. During times when I had restrictions and couldn’t get any family visits, I was sad, mad, and felt like I was losing my mind. As a result, I felt disconnected and distant from my family, I couldn’t focus in school, I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares and would wake up in cold sweats, I would get irritated easily, I was short tempered, and I would fight. I even witnessed a peer trying to hang himself due to mental abuse.

Luckily, I was one of the few people whose lack of family visits didn’t last too long. Some people don’t have a good relationship with their families, so they never got a visit. Others’ families couldn’t visit their incarcerated loved ones because facilities weren’t accessible with their physical and financial needs: not being able to afford transportation, and living too far from the facility.

Getting family visits had good benefits for me and those in my jailhouse community. Some of those benefits were increased positivity, being happy, less stress, family connection, good quality sleep, fewer or no fights, fewer behavioral issues, more verbal problem solving instead of violence, better concentration, etc. That is how my personal experience, knowledge, and the experience of my community has made me passionate about family visits while incarcerated.

Jose Reyna was part of the most recent cohort of Youth Justice Fellows at Evident Change. You can read a blog post written by another fellow in the cohort, Speranza Gonzalez, about family meeting models in child welfare.

Jose describes his background in his own words:

I am an entrepreneur, community advocate, and much more. I am also formerly incarcerated. I got involved with community work through a high school class that led me to Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ). Later, while incarcerated, my lawyer and I received assistance from CURYJ. Throughout my incarceration, I stayed in contact with CURYJ, with staff showing up at my high school graduation at juvenile hall. After serving three years and seven months for my conviction, I got involved in CURYJ’s life coaching program and worked as a full-time employee.

I was also part of CURYJ’s Dream Beyond Bars Research Project, which collected the opinions of community members about alternatives to youth incarceration. Their goal is to close all lock-down facilities for youth and build healthy alternatives that get at the root problems of youth involved in the justice system. My personal experience in the justice system and the permanent, positive life impact of community organizations sparked my passion to help my community and others in need. I hope to continue making a difference through my work at Evident Change.