Losing Your Brothers to Prison

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

This week I wrote a six-part series that explored the myriad effects on the siblings of young people who serve time in prison:

The reporting was heartrending, as several conversations were accented by tears and long silences as siblings recalled their pain and loss. The reporting also had some dead-ends, as we have scant information about the lifelong impact on the so-called “non-offending sibling”—the little brother or big sister at home whose world changes irreversibly. As we prepared the series for publication, we realized that part of that void could be filled by our readers with similar experiences, so we sent out a call for personal stories. We received many, and are so thankful for each of them. We will share some of the stories, anonymously, in an ongoing series—starting with the following note, which a reader sent last night:

As I’m lying here unable to sleep as I think about my incarcerated brothers, I happened to stumble across your series on the subject and I thought I should send my own story.

Today, I had to make a difficult choice. My youngest brother (I’ll call him Chris) is currently making local headlines because he is the star witness in a trial against his alleged partner-in-crime in a tragic murder case. As I was driving this morning with tears in my eyes, I chose to drive to work instead of the courthouse.

Chris committed first-degree murder at the age of 16. This happened just a day after one of our two other brothers had been arrested on unrelated charges that brought him a couple-of-decades-long sentence.

I was always rather protective of my three younger brothers growing up. Together, we experienced abuse and trauma as a result of our parents’ actions. We were made to believe that we were utterly worthless. My mother struggled with suicide attempts and ideation for a long time. My brothers struggled with untreated mental illness. They each began by acting out in school, suspensions, self-medication with illegal drugs, minor crimes, expulsions, suicide attempts, further trauma, and felonies.

As a big sister, I felt I could see this all coming in a way. I begged my parents to do something to intervene, to get them help. But there was just denial that there was any problem, or refusal to invest time or money to try to fix it. I felt helpless and scared.

I feel now that we all let my brothers down—society, the system. When kids have parents like mine, shouldn’t there be a way to help them anyway? To keep them from falling through the cracks? To prevent all this tragedy?

We failed my brothers. It began with our parents. But our neighbors and friends either didn’t notice signs of abuse or didn’t call it in. Our teachers only saw them as troublemakers who needed to be removed and punished, and our state doesn’t feel it needs to invest enough in our schools and teachers so that they could even have the capacity to help kids like my brothers.

When I made the mistake of calling DHS [Department of Human Services], it only made things worse for us. The juvenile justice system only seemed to exacerbate the issue. People prefer to spend more money on punishment than on treatment and rehabilitation. And my brothers—those that committed crimes and are incarcerated—are not the only ones that suffer in our community as a result. Not by a long shot.

My heart now has big gaping holes in it. I miss my two brothers every day. And I feel conflicted because I feel so angry at them for the choices they’ve made that have hurt so many. I wonder how I can ever forgive them. How can I have a relationship with Chris moving forward?

I also feel so devastated for my brothers because it feels like we all created them due to our own failures. I wonder, if they had just received the mental health care they needed, would this have still happened? I feel immense horror and sadness for the young girl my brother killed and for her family. And I feel grief because the brothers I once knew have died. The life I hoped we would have as adult siblings is lost. And I feel so alone.

The pain is so raw even years after it happened, even before this trial began, dredging it up in the media again. Something in me wishes that I could go to this trial to somehow support both the victim’s family and to support my brother in a way, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Those two desires are clashing. My desire to support my brother clashes with my own rage and pain.

I struggle with feeling isolated and withdrawn much of the time. I don’t know how to talk about my family with people. I wish there were support groups and resources available for others like me. So I think telling my story is worth it if it could help someone else.

If you’d like to share your own story, please send us a note. And if you, or someone you know, would like to receive support, the Directory of Programs Serving Families of Adult Offenders is a good resource.

Update from a reader who very much relates to the first one:

I know all too well the feelings that come with losing your brothers to prison. I have four brothers, and every one of them has been in prison. One has been in and out since he was a juvenile. I lost one brother due to police brutality just two months after he was released from prison. I now have one brother on house arrest and two in prison. Most of their crimes are due to drug addiction.

I have often wondered if they were made to work hard while in prison, if that would make it so they would not want to go back. Each time they are released, I pray they never go back.