Talking about Incarceration
November 3, 2020

Have you ever considered what it might be like for your mentee to have communication with their incarcerated or deported parent?  Maybe it is only through letters, an infrequent phone call, or on rare occasions talking on a phone while looking at one another through a plexiglass window. These brief connections are rarely private.  Communicating with incarcerated loved ones is severely limited by the boundaries of the criminal justice system and now, the impact of Covid-19 has added more stress by preventing visits altogether. It is important for mentors to be prepared to respond to your mentee’s experience, whatever that may be, and know how to support them socio-emotionally. 

If your mentee decides to share their experience surrounding their parent’s absence, be aware of the language you use as you respond, because it matters. Arizona State University (ASU) recently held “The State of Incarceration Virtual Summit” featuring different panels that discuss how mass incarceration has affected people, especially children with an incarcerated parent.

During a session titled “Seeing and Supporting Children who have Incarcerated Parents,” the youth panel advised to stay away from criminal justice labels such as “criminal” and “inmate”. They also specifically mentioned how it bothers them when they share their experiences and adults try to pacify them by saying “everything will be okay.” This type of language can ultimately dismiss our mentee’s reality, even if our intent is to make them feel better about their circumstances. If your mentee does choose to share their experience with you, remember to empathize with active listening.  Refrain from inserting your experiences into the conversation. (For a refresher on using the power of empathy when communicating with your mentee, read the recap of last month’s mentor training “Validating Emotions”. )

You cannot guarantee that everything will be okay for your mentee, but you can reassure them they are not alone. By paying attention to the challenges our mentees face, listening, being present in the moment, knowing the right language to use, and using the power of empathy, we can effectively support our mentees. 

Source: Arizona State University “State of Incarceration Virtual Summit” Webinar

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