Reentry Lifeskills

January 4, 2023

7 Tips for Supporting a Returning Citizen

According to a report from 2015, over 640,000 people return home from incarceration each year. However, due to legal, geographical, and other barriers, many ex-prisoners find it difficult to adjust to civilian life, with many re-offending and returning to prison within the first 3 years. With a solid support system, returning citizens will find themselves with a lower chance of recidivating, and a much higher chance of reintegrating back to society. Below are tips for family members and friends wanting to support a returning loved one.

1) Beware of Culture Shock

Your loved one has been gone for a while. Have you ever gone on a week-long camping trip? If so, you may have felt a slight feeling of disorientation when coming “back to reality.” Chances are, your loved one may have been gone for much longer than a week. The longer they’ve been gone, the more disorienting their return may be. Even 6-12 months away can feel like a long time. The truth is, the world keeps spinning and while we were present while it was, they were in a very different place; people and places may not be as they were when your loved one left, there may be new technology or new trends, new places, and/or new people. Be patient while they re-orient and find their center of gravity. 

2) Prepare for change

You may both be different people now than you were before, which means that your relationship may change – and that’s okay. This gives you both an opportunity to find a way forward, and embrace a new kind of relationship. Consider seeking professional guidance, such as a counselor or a therapist.  

3) Provide structure

While incarcerated, inmates follow a strict schedule set for them by the facility they were in. One effect of following a strict schedule like this is that people often struggle upon release to make and keep structure for themselves because many come to rely on a highly structured life. Abruptly losing that sense of structure can send a person into a tailspin, and will not be productive.

You can help your returning family member by creating structure for them, such as having a family meal at the same time each day. If you are helping them look for a job, schedule a time each day to look for jobs. This way, they will know what to expect and when. When scheduling an activity, ask for your loved one’s input and what to do, where to go, etc. The goal is to provide structure, while also allowing for flexibility and independence. Asking for their input for certain activities allows them to build ownership in creating their own structure. 

4) Prepare for job search

Helping your returning loved one find a job may prove to be more difficult than a regular job search.

For one, there is still a stigma around formerly incarcerated people, and you will run into this time and again. Be patient with the process, and know that it may take longer than you anticipate. 

For another, most returning citizens do not have an official form of identification beyond their identifying documents from the correctional facility. Be aware that you may need to help them get an I.D. or driver’s license in order to get a job.

5) Get connected

Find support groups and community resources, for yourself and for your loved one. There may be Facebook groups for people in your area, church groups, community centers, and other support groups. Below are places and resources to get you started:

6) Be mindful of mental health matters

We’ve talked about the disorientation that comes with adjusting back to a world that may be different for your loved one from when they left to when they return. Uncertainty often breeds a feeling of helplessness or loss of control, and this can cause feelings of anxiety, stress, and even depression. Recognize that your loved one may be dealing with a lot of different feelings, at the same time. These feelings may be heightened if your loved one is returning from a facility across the country, far from home.

If you have not already, look into behavioral/mental health services in your area and link your loved one to these resources. 

7) Take care of yourself

The airline safety videos have got it right: “Place your oxygen mask on first before helping others.” Showing up for others requires that you first show up for yourself. 

Some helpful self-care activities include: mindfulness meditation, nature walks/hikes, taking up pottery, painting, exercising, or listening to podcasts. Self-care looks different for everyone. Choose an activity that works to help you relax. For more ideas, click here: Activities to Add to Your Self-Care Plan.