The Forgotten Crime Victims : Little-Known Group Offers Aid and Solace to the Hard-Pressed Spouses and Relatives of Inmates
They are separated from their loved ones, often reduced to welfare, afraid to see friends and relatives, and uncertain about the future.
Forgotten in a wave of concern about the victims of crime, and often feeling like prisoners themselves, they are the families of criminals.
Often they find no solace even within their family or circle of friends. Adair Herrera, 24, of Santa Ana, who was planning to marry a man who went to prison, said that all she heard from family and friends was “how dumb you are and how you should forget this guy.”
“It’s a really traumatic thing to go through to have your husband taken from you and put in prison,” said Mary Waggoner, 22, of Garden Grove, whose husband is serving an 11 1/2-year prison term.
Herrera, Waggoner and other spouses of inmates have sought help from a little-known organization called Friends Outside, which aids families of jail and prison inmates and helps former offenders get on the right track when they are released.
“The primary focus of Friends Outside is on the family unit and keeping it together,” said Joseph Ossman, national director of the Salinas-based organization, which now has 21 chapters in California, Nevada and Idaho since its creation in 1954.
The group directs destitute families to the right community services for such things as food, clothing and counseling; it provides children of prisoners with role models and such positive experiences as camping trips; it works to keep family members in touch with prisoners.
“When a prisoner’s family stays together, that prisoner has a better chance of not re-offending again,” Ossman said. “The family is the primary rehabilitative tool. Studies have shown that if a prisoner’s family stays together, that prisoner is several times less likely to be in prison within a year after his release.”
The effort to lessen recidivism is important, he said, because 97% of all inmates eventually return to the community.
Wives Live in Terror
“The people who get into jail have less experience with human kindness than anybody else,” Rosemary Goodenough, founder of the group, said when she was trying to set up an Orange County chapter in 1971.
“There’s nothing so vulnerable as a young woman living alone without a husband with small children. Wives of prisoners often live in mortal terror of their neighbors. . . . And what a terrible thing it is to have your father in prison.”
In fact, said Pam Haggert, 38, of Fullerton, it is the alienation and shame most spouses feel that often lead to divorces. Haggert, who met and married a former convict and shared his difficulties in adjusting to life after prison, often talks with and helps families of inmates.
She recently helped Friends Outside set up a women’s support group, a new service offered by the local chapter. “Just to be able to sit down and explain with other women what you’re going through is great,” Haggert said. “You can become more bitter, more angry, if you don’t talk it out.”
Waggoner said she was looking for support after the Air Force put her husband in a military prison on drug charges last year and even threatened her with prosecution. She was forced out of the service last January and was left with a 2 1/2-year-old daughter to support but with no money or job skills.
Unable to get a job, Waggoner said, she found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. She learned about Friends Outside and went to the county chapter in Orange to find others like herself.
Creation of Added Burden
“I figured there were a lot of women out there having a hard time,” she said. “I found out there are a lot of women worrying about husbands, and if they have children, that creates added burdens.
“I talked with a woman who was in a whole lot worse shape than I was in. That made me realize I was not alone and that others are going through the same symptoms, the same things I was.
“I don’t like to be angry when I feel hurt, and my husband hurt me by putting me in this position,” she said. “By talking it out in the support group, it kind of soothed the anger.”
For Herrera, Friends Outside helped her visit her fiance in the state prison at Soledad, where he started serving a 15-year term two years ago. The organization provides Greyhound bus tickets at a 25% discount and has homes for spouses at $10 a night near a number of institutions.
Herrera even moved to Soledad for four months, but left last January when she called off the wedding.
“I couldn’t keep my mind on my studies,” she said. “I’m just a nurse’s aide, but I should have been a registered nurse by now. I’m back on track now, but it took a long time to get back because there was so much emotional bull.”
Herrera said it was talking to the spouses of other inmates and seeing what they were going through that convinced her that she “didn’t want to live this way.” She also said she saw a “sweet man” being turned into a hardened prisoner.
Besides, she said, the routine got her down. She was twice strip-searched before she could see her fiance, often waited a long time just to spend a short time with him, ate food out of vending machines and faced usually unfriendly guards. “They treated you like you’re the prisoner,” Herrera said.
Estelle Flaherty, 25, of Fullerton was expecting the birth of her third child last January when her husband was arrested, pleaded guilty to breaking into his employer’s office while he was drunk and sentenced to 16 months in prison.
“My husband called me from the prison at Chino and told me to call Friends Outside for help,” Flaherty said. “The first thing they did was set up arrangements so I could see my husband so we could talk about things--our life together as well as how soon we were going to be together.”
With no money, no job and no car, she found it difficult to visit her husband while he was at the Orange County Jail. “I had to wait three hours with a newborn baby just to see him for half an hour,” she said. After her husband was transferred to Chino, she jumped at the chance to ride with Friends Outside volunteers for more frequent visits, a van service the organization now provides to area jails and prisons.
For Herrera, Waggoner, Flaherty and the families of other inmates, Friends Outside also helps by directing them to agencies that can provide them with food, clothing, job counseling and local bus tickets. A county employment agency, for instance, found a temporary job for Waggoner with Friends Outside.
Workshops and Job Counseling
The group also gives families Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets and provides children with toys.
And it provides inmates themselves with workshops, job counseling and such services as banking. Once released, former offenders can get housing referrals, clothing, food and other help from Friends Outside.
Through the group’s national headquarters, full-time workers enter five prisons to keep the lines of communication open between prisoners and family members or “to build bridges for those out of touch with their families,” Ossman said. The five prisons are the institutions for men at Soledad, Tehachapi, San Luis Obispo and Chino and the Institution for Women at Frontera.
Volunteers at the local level visit jails to try to provide similar services, he said.
“We just get tremendous support from correctional officials all over,” Ossman said. “There’s a real strong recognition of the family-related needs of prisoners. Particularly when so many resources of jails and prisons are trying to deal with overcrowding, they look to us to provide some of these services and alleviate inmate tension.”
The group remains small. “We’re developing nationally, but we don’t really have resources,” Ossman said. “It depends on the initiative in local communities.”
In Orange County, founder Goodenough, who died in 1973, could get only a few women interested in helping inmates’ families. But in 1978, Newport Beach residents Bernice Ronford and Mary Dennigan organized a chapter of volunteers and soon won financial support from the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
But it wasn’t until the last year that the organization was able to hire two full-time staff members, said Cathie Blackman, program coordinator for the local chapter.
Helped 37 Families
The group is organizing activities to raise funds for additional staff and services, Blackman said. When she joined the group in August, 1984, the local chapter serviced only seven families that month. Last month, she said, the local Friends Outside helped 37 families from its small office in Orange.
Funding for other chapters varies, Ossman said. Some rely totally on public donations, others on government contracts or grants. Eight receive United Way funds, he said.
Friends Outside hopes to get its message across to a wider group soon. Ossman said the organization is working with a film company on a made-for-television movie about women in prison and their custody battles for their children.
“A mother’s legal rights as a parent get trampled on when she goes to prison,” he said.
Friends Outside operates a program at the Frontera prison to help women decide what is realistic for their children, to help them remain in touch with social workers, to help them attend child-custody hearings and to promote visits. If necessary, the organization will refer inmates to attorneys, Ossman said.
Blackman sees the organization as a crime deterrent because maintaining family ties with inmates means not only fewer repeat offenders, but less violence and tension in the prisons themselves.
“Crime has just gotten out of hand,” she said. “The judges, the lawyers and others in the criminal justice system are nice people and they do what they can, but they can’t solve the problems themselves. So there’s a great responsibility on the community, through donations or volunteering time, to help deter crime.”