Student reaches out to family members of prison inmates

After enrolling in professor Sonja Young’s family studies class, Portland State student Joseph Boyd was inspired to help those who have experienced having family members in prison.

After enrolling in professor Sonja Young’s family studies class, Portland State student Joseph Boyd was inspired to help those who have experienced having family members in prison.

Boyd knows the effect prison can have on an individual’s life. Although he wasn’t in prison himself, he had a mother who was incarcerated for eight years, starting from the time he was 16. Until recently, he never spoke about it.

“It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to think about it or process it until six or seven years later. After my mom went to prison, I moved in with relatives and then kept moving…I didn’t take the time to feel,” Boyd said. “It made me cry. I never heard of incarceration in those terms—people who are denied the ritual of grief when someone is taken.”

In his class last term, Boyd and his classmates read “Rituals as Tools of Resistance,” an essay that focused on the aspects of incarcerated family members and the rituals of saying goodbye.

He has found that opening up about his experience helped to change the way people viewed incarceration; instead of viewing it as a system, they saw it from a family perspective.

Boyd’s growing passion for raising awareness about the effects of incarceration on families drove him to look for support groups and other resources to help others that have been, or are, in his situation. He is currently involved in speaking with the “lifers” group at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which is the prison his mother was at for eight years.

The lifers are the group of women who have been sentenced to life at the facility.

Boyd is currently working alongside Coffee Creek and Portland’s First Unitarian Church to help create a four-part workshop to raise awareness in the community. The workshop will include a showing of the film “Sin by Silence,” which is a story about the women inside the California Institute for Women and how they broke their silence about domestic violence, according to Boyd.

The second part of the workshop will focus on incarceration and the family, primarily centering on how it affects children of incarcerated parents. Boyd plans to give a talk about his experience during this part of the workshop.

The third part will include a tour of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, where people will be able to meet some of the inmates and speak with them directly.

The last part of the workshop will deal with the difficulties of post-imprisonment and reentry into society, a challenge that most of the inmates face when they are finally released from prison, Boyd said.

“There is a need to shed light on the resources that are available in the community to help these people,” he said. “In sharing my story, I hope that the community can become stronger with knowing that if there is an individual or family in this situation, they would want to help. Or at the very least, that if they don’t want to help, that they can just view these people with more compassion and insight.”

Coffee Creek’s chaplain, Emily Brault, has been working with the women there for seven years.

“I think as a society we tend to compartmentalize the inmate and the crime, and there’s this whole other world of invisible, impacted people out there,” Brault said. “We forget that these women are mothers and sisters, daughters and aunts, wives and partners.”

According to Brault, inmates suffer from not being able to see their family members.

“When things happen to their kids or their siblings or their parents, their grief is often amplified by the very fact of being separated from them,” she said. “We miss the bigger picture when we label people in those ways.”

Boyd is just one of many who have dealt with the effects of incarceration, and he hopes that others like him can experience the same acceptance he had in sharing his story, he said. He encourages others who want to help, volunteer or share their experiences to e-mail him at [email protected]

“I am an example, living a fulfilled life, that there is hope,” he said. “But I have had to struggle to get here—it’s important to send the message that no one has to go through this alone.” ?