Top 10 things you can do to help a loved one or friend who is in prison

#8 Be inspired to go visit someone close to you who is isolated or alone.

Being alone is near the top of the list of humankinds’ greatest fears. Many people are more afraid of being alone than they are of dying. I’m talking about real loneliness that results from difficult circumstances as opposed to the occasional evening without any social activity. Loneliness in prison is a condition all of its own. Being lonely within a crowd of strangers can be confusing and difficult to interpret; yet the environment and circumstances of incarceration are only one example of this difficult time, which can seemingly be far reaching. While immersed as I approach 6 months of confinement, the experience has inspired me to want to help eliminate loneliness everywhere.

In prison, inmates find camaraderie within small groups of people, and this helps to support each others’ survival needs including safety, security and social interaction. Loneliness ebbs and flows as an ever present enemy. When people who have brought comfort are released back to their homes, others with new needs arrive regularly. Beyond the small group of people who become an ever changing and protected inner circle, the exchange of daily courtesies among a far larger group captures additional interactions where highly variable personalities share tight living space, bathroom facilities and agitating dining experiences. But the majority of the inmates make up the greater community, and a mostly non-interactive presence allows each person the space to progress through these challenging circumstances without isolation and with a general bias toward respect. Everyone serves the community in this way, and everyone benefits, beating back each others’ individual feelings of loneliness that can emerge daily.

To correlate this experience with any other is difficult, but I offer that the culture of prison seems similar to what could be expected living in a nursing home. Although I have never lived in one, some thoughtful comparison suggests that the gap between this experience — living with strangers in an institutional setting, eating community food, surrounded by controlling employees, group-think and rampant gossip — is not significantly different compared to the nursing home experience. Loneliness can stand on its own or it can be buried within a crowd of confusion, and either is equally depressing regardless of the venue. It is a silent hazard that requires thoughtful perception in order to detect it as individuals mask its appearance.

Before I came to prison, I was not sensitive to the magnitude of loneliness, nor did I take much action helping those people in my life who were experiencing it either because they were confined to some facility, shut-in within their own home because of age or illness, going through a hardship like divorce or simply depressed and in need of friendship, love or assistance. But every age group is affected. Now that I know what its like, I better understand my role in helping to address it because its debilitating qualities ultimately do not escape anyone.

“Experience is the cruelest teacher. It gives the test, and then it gives the lesson.” (author unknown)

My desire is that by reading this you will be inspired to further consider people in your own life, particularly those who may be going through a situation where they could be overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness. Put some thought into their circumstances, and go visit them! Then drop a note to your friend or loved one in prison to let him or her know that the circumstances of their incarceration have caused you to think about others in new ways, and in so doing, their confinement has helped another person who probably feels just like them. By letting them know that even though you can’t visit them right now for whatever reason, their confinement has caused you to think about others who may be experiencing similar challenges. Your lifting of burdens can be felt across any distance, and it will make your incarcerated friend feel good knowing that he or she inspired your helpful actions.

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