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Your Stories of Siblings in Prison
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Readers describe the painful and complicated feelings of having a brother or sister behind bars. If you’ve had a sibling in prison, or if you served time yourself with a sibling growing up, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. (And if you, or someone you know, need support, the Directory of Programs Serving Families of Adult Offenders is a good resource.)

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Only Ever Knowing Your Brother Behind Bars

A reader in Chicago details her first memory of her older brother—“behind the Plexiglas”:

Across from him is where I sit on the counter with my parents. There is snow on the ground, but I can’t see it. The only thing I see is my brother in his uniform, assigned to him a number—his name lost with countless others.

The mood is light, and the elephant in the room is being successfully ignored. It’s Christmas Eve, so why can’t I hug him? Instead I talk about what I asked Santa for Christmas and my mom is talking about the midnight mass we’ll be going to that night. My dress itches and my tights are uncomfortable. I hate this place, I hate the uniform, I hate the terrible lighting, and I can’t wait to leave—but I want him to come with me. He promised he would take me to Disneyland.

The elephant is still successfully ignored, as if it will no longer exist if we ignore it long enough. But that is not the case, and it won’t be for the years to come.

***

My brother has been in prison for 21 years, since I was 3 years old. The crime? Double murder due to gang affiliations. In most circumstances, that would divide a family, but it brought us closer.

While serving his time, my brother was allowed five visits per month—and my parents made sure that all five were met. He would help me with my homework when he could, and he would listen to my ranting about the latest drama. He is an artist, a syfy enthusiast, a Cubs fan. He is 13 years older than I am, but we are as close, maybe closer, than most siblings with less of an age gap.

The latest story in our reader series comes from a young woman, Ngeri, who is “still personally working through my anger with my father for taking away my best friend”—her brother, who’s currently serving a lengthy prison sentence. Her deep resentment toward her father stems from his absenteeism, flagrant infidelity, and the domestic violence that nearly killed her mother. She suggests that her brother’s close but toxic affinity to their father contributed to the “adventurous and inquisitive boy”’s eventual depression, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and violent outbursts—even toward Ngeri, using a knife.

But let her tell the long story—one of the most compelling and well-crafted ones we’ve received thus far:

My younger brother is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence for dropping off two friends at a house where he did not know they had plotted to kill an elderly couple.

It’s hard to hear him referenced now as an Inmate with an identification number. I have many other names I apply to him, all with loving or funny stories associated with them. These days I know he hardly hears any of those stories, and that hurts.

We are 14 months apart. He was my first best friend. We did everything together. We shared a room with a bunk bed, went to the same school, shared many of the same friends, and even shared meals. Why did our lives end up taking such different paths?

Him being in trouble had become a norm in my life. When we were younger, it was the little things like climbing the shed in the backyard and other dare devilish stunts. Most of them could be chalked up to him just being an adventurous and inquisitive boy. I had no idea then that his trouble would leave the comforts of our home, and begin to involve law enforcement.

***

My brother adored our father. He always wanted to make him proud. Our father called him “Agu-Nna Ya,” which stands for father’s lion in Igbo. My brother loved hearing that. Our father would promise him endless things and leave much to be desired every single time.

This reader was hesitant to share her story and wasn’t sure if we even wanted to hear it:

I thought I would write in case you’re interested in sharing the perspective of an upper-middle-class white family going through this. So many of the challenges in terms of psychological impact and family dynamics are universal, but there is sort of the additional burden of shame, embarrassment, and a lack of people to talk to when incarceration rates are really low in my community. I know virtually no one who can relate. I’m not sure where to start, or if you’re even interested, but I’d be willing to talk with you provided anything written would be anonymous; I don’t want my family’s name made public. It would make me feel good to share our story if it might make others in this situation feel not so alone.

The reader follows up with a detailed story about her sister’s perpetual problems with drug addiction:

The image of a pretty blond Piper Chapman in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs catapulted Orange is the New Black to fame. I’d be willing to venture that the average American was intrigued by the story’s premise. After all, prison is no place for a nice, upper-middle-class girl, but that is precisely the reality my family deals with every day. I wish I could say my younger sister’s reasons for getting locked up were as glamorous as Piper’s—unwittingly involved in international drug trafficking while jet-setting the globe with her beautiful girlfriend—but our story is much sadder and much less interesting.

My sister was incarcerated for breaking into a car and stealing prescription drugs. How on earth she happened to know there were prescription drugs in this particular car, I do not know, nor have I ever bothered to ask her. She has always been elusive on details regarding such things, so I’m not sure I would believe her story anyway.

She spent over two years in prison—a heavy sentence for her crime, but this was mainly due to a parole officer and judge who recognized the extent of her substance abuse problem and realized prison was the safest place for her. While most people would worry incessantly if a family member was thrown into prison, my family couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. At least she was somewhere safe and for two plus years.

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:

This reader grew much closer to her brother while he was in prison:

I was raised in a nuclear family in a Midwestern small town. Like so many small towns across the heartland, we had a drug problem, and one my brothers fell victim to it. He was sentenced to five years in prison for drugs during my sophomore year of college.

Between the age difference (six years) and the Midwestern culture, I was never “close” to my brother, or any of my siblings—not in the way where we shared honest and open communication. Our family was one of avoidance. We avoided talking about the hard things, even when they were right in front of our faces. We avoided confronting them, even in ourselves. It seemed that we pushed everything down until all our emotions manifested into anger. Sadness, disappointment, pain, hurt, embarrassment, guilt—all of it denied until it became anger—forcing itself out in the most inconvenient times.

When my brother went to prison, that changed. We began talking more, either because we were older or he had little else to do in prison. I would visit on the holidays and we would really talk. I got to know my adult brother while he was locked up. We talked about the hard stuff—the shared pain, the mistakes, how we really felt about all of it.

It was uncomfortable and often sad, but it was also cathartic. It was honest. Sadness was sadness. Guilt was guilt. Anger was anger.

He was released years ago, and we don’t talk as much as we did during his sentence, but the honesty is still there. We still communicate with trust and respect. We still cry every once in a while. We still get scared and we even avoid things still, but not as much as before.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

A reader writes:

My brother is serving his second prison term, this time for five years. I visit him when I can, have taken my mother to visit him, and then dealt with the emotional fallout of her distress at seeing her boy in those conditions. I love my brother—I’ve never stopped loving him—and I was in court to see his trial and sentencing. I wanted him to know he had my love, but afterwards I thanked his lawyer for representing him and the police for helping to convict him—because he deserved to go to prison.

His crappy choices put him there. I don’t blame the system, his upbringing, or anything or anyone else.

Sure, it has taken a huge toll on our family, financially and emotionally. And I am quite honest with him about that when he asks. Ultimately though, we are not the victims. There are real victims of his crimes out there, and I cannot and will not make excuses for him or feel that the impact on us should have been taken into account in the whole process. I love him but hate what he did. He knows, once again, that we will be there to support him when he is released—unless or until he makes crappy choices again. The love will never go, but the support will go if he messes up again.

I asked our reader what crime her brother was convicted of, and her answer is more heartbreaking that I imagined:

It’s odd, really—there’s a big part of me that is reluctant to answer that question, as I fear that by doing so I’ll get the pariah treatment and you won’t want to publish anything about my situation. But by writing in, I guess I started it, so here goes.

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.