The Trauma of Visiting a Sibling in Prison

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our latest story comes from a reader whose brother is locked up for murder and attempted murder:

I lost my brother almost 20 years ago. I’m a 28-year-old female whose brother has been imprisoned since I was 9 years old. For as long as I can remember, my childhood was spent with my (single parent) mother spending her money, energy, and limited resources on attorneys and visitations for my older brother. Holidays and his birthday—in December—always left my mother depressed, and I was not the only one forgotten at home. His incarceration was more than I should have had to experience as a 9 year old. No one cared to ask how I felt or how I currently feel.

At 28, I haven’t seen my brother in four years. And the letters are one every year, if he’s lucky. I am always the bad sister for not knowing what to write him, or for insisting that my mental health cannot handle a pat-down or being touched by strangers. That’s why I don’t visit; the pat-downs are unbearable and cause PTSD symptoms. The watchful eyes of guards who saw me as the sister of a “thug” also caused too much anxiety.

Eventually, after being forced to lie for so long about where my brother “lived,” I stopped saying I had a brother. The embarrassment and anxiety and guilt of having a brother incarcerated was too much. I’m going to be married soon, and my fiancé knows nothing about my brother. He is just this figure that once protected and loved me but who has missed 20 years of my life.

This next reader has gone to see her brother in prison three times a week since his conviction of a second DUI this year:

I gained a new understanding for the Catholic virtue of visiting those in prison. I was the only person, of all he considers friends, to visit. We have a strange new bond, he and I. He knows I might not be knocking on his door every checking in, but I sure as hell will not leave my brother in a cell.

Another reader wishes there had been better options for her brother:

I am a married young professional in Houston. Growing up, my older half-brother, who is 10 years older than me, was always getting in legal trouble. It was frustrating to see him constantly get in trouble when he had so much support from my mom and grandpa. My brother started getting in trouble as a teen. He didn’t want to live with my parents, as he didn’t care for my dad (his step-dad) and wanted to live with my grandpa. But he was kicked out of school while living with my grandpa and sent to live with my aunt in Dallas. He got in trouble there too.

Eventually, he dropped out of school and started selling drugs. My mom was hurt. She tried to help him. Throughout my childhood into adulthood, I rarely saw my brother. It made me jealous of friends who had older brothers who were successful, responsible, and reliable. I never discussed it with my mom because I knew she would be upset regarding my jealousy of people with older, responsible siblings. I’m the oldest girl (I have a younger sister), so all of the older sibling responsibilities fell on me.

I’m now 27, and the last time I saw my brother was almost seven years ago. It was Christmas and we were happy to see him. Afterwards, we didn’t hear from him for months. My mom was nervous and assumed he was killed, but we found out he was incarcerated again for selling drugs. He is currently out and I’m hoping he gets it together because my mom has high hopes for him. My mom is reaching her 60s and it would hurt me to see him break her heart again. I really hope he stays on track.

Being black in America is tough, but being a black man with a felony record is HARD. The odds are not in his favor. I do think my brother is a victim of mass incarceration. I am not downplaying his actions, but black men are constantly arrested and convicted of drug offenses while I see so many damn sex offenders roaming free.

Instead of locking these young men up and automatically sending them to prison for drug offenses, why not offer counseling and job training? My brother started serving time at 17-18 and I think these options could have benefitted him. Sometimes, having that outside source helping you can be very beneficial versus only hearing lectures from mom and other family members.