Hidden crime victims: The families of those imprisoned

In the midst of National Crime Victims Week, the public is rightfully reminded of the toll crime takes on our communities and families.  But what is often overlooked in these observances are the hidden victims — the families of those convicted of crimes.


Many of us — and yes, I am one of this large but often silent group — suffer terribly and for decades from both the after-effects of the crime committed by those we love, as well as the effects of incarceration on those loved ones and our families.


At a recent public meeting, a representative for one of the crime-victims’ groups read a litany of terms she claimed to have been used against crime victims by prisoner advocates.


Terms like, vengeful, hateful, responsible for the crime and evil.  I am a prisoner advocate, it is my vocation and life.  I am also an approved observer at parole hearings.  And while I have never heard any prisoner advocate use those pejorative terms about crime victims, I have often heard prisoners appearing at parole hearings called similar and much worse by the relatives and victims of their crime.  Sometimes the hate is palpable.


Parole hearings are a grueling process meant to scrutinize the life-term prisoner to determine if that prisoner has reformed, rebuilt his or her thought processes and can now safely be released.  It is usually unsuccessful, as the standards the parole board uses to determine this suitability are both rigorous and nebulous.  Prisoners often labor for decades to attain counseling, self-help, treatment for substance abuse and distorted thought process, have years of exemplary prison behavior and performance only to be told by the parole board that they lack the elusive quality of ‘insight’ and denied parole.


The law promises those sentenced to the possibility of parole a second chance if they meet the ever-changing standards set by the parole board. For years, the California parole board released only a scant handful of life term prisoners.


In recent years, largely as a result of court rulings overturning denials that were handed down for reasons outside of the legal perimeters, the board has been releasing a few more lifers.  The crime rate has not skyrocketed, nor did the murder rate increase, as lifers, by CDCR’s own figures, recidivate at a rate of less than 1 percent.  This as opposed to the 65-plus percent recidivism by other prisoners.


And yet, many victims and victims groups still berate the parole board (for following the law), the prisoners (for the crime) and advocates and family members (for continuing to love the person, if not the crime).  We understand that the pain, hurt and sorrow of crime victims and their families never completely leaves.  Many find solace in becoming involved in restorative justice groups, which work within the prisons to bring the much needed ‘insight’ to prisoners.  Others do not.


What we wish, for all individuals, is the understanding that for a truly reformed and rehabilitated prisoner, and their families, the pain, shame and sorrow of the results of their crimes also never leaves.  Many released prisoners dedicate themselves to helping others, including at risk youth, as a means of amends for their past actions.   Many become deeply and religiously involved in AA, NA and associated groups in an effort to help those still struggling.  They actively seek ways to become a positive force in an effort to counterbalance the negativity they previously embodied.


All we, as advocates and family members of prisoners, have ever asked is that the law be fairly and faithfully followed.  And the law allows for a second chance.


So in this week of crime victims observances, please taken just a second to think of those other victims, the hidden ones.  The families of those convicted, who work tirelessly to help their prisoners reshape and reform their lives.  And the reformed and rehabilitated prisoners, countless numbers of whom continue to languish in prison because of political rather than legal decisions.


Crime has many causes and many victims.  Not all are easily recognized.

Ed’s Note: Vanessa Nelson heads the LIfe Support Alliance, which advocates on behalf of prisoners sentenced to life.



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