The Long Recovery After a Spouse Gets Out of Prison

PTSD in the formerly incarcerated has been widely studied. But what follows the “vicarious imprisonment” of their free-world romantic partners?

A woman's face behind illustrated bars
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Crystal Bermudez met her husband, Fernando, while he was being held in New York City’s Rikers Island jail in 1991. At the time, she was 18 years old and living with her parents in Oklahoma. She told me she saw Fernando’s father on the national news, proclaiming his son’s innocence in the shooting outside a nightclub for which he’d been charged. Something about the story “pierced my heart,” and she wrote Fernando a letter. They met a few months later and eventually married.

They fought Fernando’s wrongful conviction for 18 years, filing and losing 10 appeals. Crystal eventually moved to nearby Connecticut. Because Fernando was sentenced in New York, one of a dwindling number of states that allow conjugal visits, the couple was able to start a family. They had three children, conceived on prison property, as Crystal supported her children and her husband through the hell of incarceration. On the 11th appeal, with the help of the Innocence Project, Fernando was exonerated. After nearly two decades in prison, he went home to his wife and children.

The legal battle had been won, and Fernando was eventually awarded a settlement from the state of New York. After another five-year legal battle to secure the compensation, the family bought a beautiful home in a verdant suburban neighborhood in North Carolina and were ready to settle into some hard-earned tranquility. But that didn’t happen.

“I just crashed,” Crystal told me. She spent the 18 years Fernando was behind bars raising a family, filing appeals, supporting the kids financially, and dealing with a debilitating injury. She put off her dreams of going to college and becoming a lawyer. When Fernando was finally released, Crystal began experiencing symptoms that she attributed to PTSD: migraines, difficulty focusing, crippling depression that would keep her in bed all day, high blood pressure, and panic when having to enter a big store or walk through a metal detector.

Crystal Bermudez
Crystal Bermudez (Crystal and Fernando Bermudez; The Atlantic)

The effects of PTSD in released prisoners have been widely studied. A 2013 paper in The International Journal of Law and Psychiatry found “a discrete subtype of PTSD that results from long-term imprisonment,” involving symptoms such as distressing dreams, sleep disturbances aligned with the schedules of prison, and emotional numbing. Fernando experienced all of these, along with difficulty breaking the habits of prison—he continued to wash his underwear in the shower after his return home.

But the enormous effects of incarceration on a prisoner’s romantic partner are less understood. I spent five years reporting on couples who met while one partner was incarcerated for my book Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons, tracing the ups and downs of these relationships. I learned about the criminal-justice system from the perspective of “prison wives,” a title that many partners of the incarcerated used themselves and took pride in, and that didn’t always denote legal marriage. In these women, most of whom were in a relationship with a man in prison, I observed a parallel post-incarceration syndrome.

There are about 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and millions more loved ones who are experiencing the criminal-justice system alongside them. People who have a partner in prison are often stigmatized; they told me they fear that employers might fire them for associating with incarcerated persons. Many of the women I interviewed reported being harassed by prison staff during visits; sometimes they weren’t told that their partner had been transferred to another prison, losing them in the system for weeks or months at a time. They face judgment from family and friends, who can’t understand why they would forgo the day-to-day togetherness of a “normal” relationship for a man in prison. Many of these women have two Facebook accounts: one for most of their family and friends, and another for connecting with other wives of incarcerated people so they can freely discuss their relationships.

Avon Hart-Johnson is the founder of the nonprofit DC Project Connect, which helps the formerly incarcerated reenter society. She has studied the plight of these wives and given it a name: vicarious imprisonment. Through dozens of interviews and surveys, Hart-Johnson learned that women who are connected to the criminal-justice system through their romantic relationship can exhibit symptoms of trauma, depression, and withdrawal that become their own kind of punishment. They may experience “social loss” whereby, as she writes in The Symbolic Imprisonment of African-American Women: A Legacy of Mass Incarceration, “some women may feel singled out as ‘different’ and somehow tainted by their mate’s incarceration.” Feeling guilty that she has freedoms her lover does not, she may “emulate the mate’s state of incarceration (reduced food intake, restricting television, no sex, and reduced social interactions).”

This vicarious imprisonment can continue long after her significant other comes home. So many women I interviewed looked forward to the day of their partner’s release as a big payoff—the light at the end of an agonizing tunnel. They anticipated the reunion as a return on the investment of supporting and remaining loyal to their husband. Or, as Jo Reed, a retired Navy combat medic who lives in Georgia, jokingly told me, “I’m not cooking another meal once he gets home. He’s going to make me pancakes and give me piggyback rides to the kitchen to eat them.”

Yet people who come out of prison receive little support or direction. They have to find full-time employment while taking required classes and drug testing that can conflict with work schedules and that they must pay for themselves. They have to find housing that will accept their prison record, and adapt to new technologies that did not exist prior to their incarceration. Many of the formerly incarcerated have had their driver’s license revoked. So instead of receiving those piggyback rides to eat pancakes, their wives end up as de facto chauffeurs, career counselors, IT experts, research librarians, therapists, and personal cheerleaders. And they do it all while dealing with their own trauma.

Relationship dynamics shift once the couple is finally living together, too. When a woman’s husband is incarcerated, she is everything to him, Crystal said. But once he comes home and begins to rebuild his life, his spouse doesn’t get the same level of attention. Crystal felt like she lost her sense of purpose after Fernando’s release. For 18 years, her world revolved around supporting him in prison. “I put all this work into trying to save my husband, but people tell me it doesn’t matter now—it was a long time ago,” she said. “And the wife doesn’t get any sympathy, because no one has suffered more than the incarcerated person.”

When I asked Crystal what could have helped her adjust better, the solutions she offered were simple: “I wish that we would have known about PTSD up front, both his and mine, and had a place to go to get help.” She realizes now that despite all the efforts she made to heal her family, she neglected herself: “When he came home, I took so many pictures of him and the kids. But now I see I’m not even in the pictures.”

Women who have a loved one in prison support one another informally: Through the social network and nonprofit Strong Prison Wives and Families, they share advice—for the duration of the sentence and after homecoming—on how to balance the huge responsibilities of caring for their partner with taking time for themselves.

Today, 12 years after her husband’s exoneration, Crystal is slowly learning how to achieve that balance. She relishes managing the commercial and rental properties the family has invested in. But still, she said, “I need to find myself. I don’t even love myself right, because I’ve been loving everybody else.” She is refocusing on her own interests. “I want to get back to cooking,” she said. “I stopped cooking, because I’d let the food burn. My mind would wander off. I’d like to start driving again. I used to love to drive, but then I started to feel like I was going to go off a cliff.” For the first time since she was a teenager, Crystal is figuring out what makes her feel good. And she’s discovering her identity beyond being the wife of a formerly incarcerated person.