The Odyssey, the epic poem by Homer and the second oldest extant work of Western literature, is a reentry story. It is a story about returning, of trying to get home, of how hard it is to return, of how hard it is to get home.
Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, is away from home for twenty years. After leaving for war, to fight in the Trojan War, which lasted ten years, it took Odysseus another ten years after the end of the war to finally make it home. For seven of those ten years he was held in captivity on the island of Ogygia.
In many languages, including English, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage.
Some individuals who have spent time in prison and jail have described their imprisonment as an odyssey. Of course, we do not think of people in prison and jail as heroes. Many of them, though, mothers and fathers, are their children’s heroes. What many of these individuals have in common with Odysseus is that they leave a minor child or children behind, and a wife or partner. Odysseus has a wife, Penelope, and a young son, Telemachus, whom he leaves behind when he sets out to war. Before he leaves, though, Odysseus places his friend, Mentor, in charge of his son.
Given the effect of mass incarceration and the separation of millions of children from their mothers and fathers, mentoring children of incarcerated parents has, unsurprisingly, become a big part of the reentry narrative in the last twenty years. Some mentoring training will even trace this very idea of mentoring to the Odyssey. This other part of the story, which is often lost, is what happens to the families left behind. When you look at the story of Odysseus, and how his family coped with his absence, you see a particular “family style” that you also see in families when a parent is imprisoned – in this case, the “family on hold,” that is, the family that patiently awaits the return of the family member at war or in captivity (imprisonment), where life practically stops for them. Penelope, Odysseus’ faithful wife, has one-hundred-and-eight suitors. They want her and her husband’s wealth. Still, she holds out, hoping that Odysseus, even after twenty years, will return home. There are countless women across the country like Penelope, faithfully waiting for their men to return from extended periods of imprisonment, for not only does the U.S. imprison more people than any other nation in the world, but it also confines them for longer periods of time than any other nation.
The Osborne Association, realizing the importance of family in the reentry narrative, pioneered a parenting curriculum in prison about thirty years ago. This parenting curriculum, under the FamilyWorks umbrella, is nationally recognized, and includes child-friendly Family Centers in prison and jail visiting rooms where mothers and fathers bond with their children; relationship and marriage education classes; family events, outreach to families, visiting opportunities and individual and family counseling. Additionally, Osborne launched the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents in 2006 following the creation of the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights by the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. (The Bill of Rights was developed with input from families affected by incarceration and from interviews with over thirty young people whose parents are or were incarcerated.)
The incarceration of individuals, of course, most often impacts families negatively. The other side of this coin, though, is how a supportive family positively impacts incarcerated individuals. The research shows that those who receive visits from family and friends while incarcerated have better outcomes than those who do not receive them. The research also shows that incarcerated people who are connected to their families during incarceration have better outcomes than their counterparts who are not connected to their families. Moreover, beyond having a supportive family, when incarcerated individuals have supportive families that believe in them, that is, families that believe that their incarcerated relative has changed and/or are making changes to improve themselves and not return to prison or jail, have even better outcomes than those simply with supportive families. Thus, families are critical to their relatives’ success when they return from prison and jail.
Mass incarceration and the reality that the overwhelming majority of incarcerated people will return to society, and hopefully to their families, has created the need for comprehensive reentry services.
The reentry literature has suggested the following improvements for “systematic preparation for release” from prisons and jails:
• Documentation for work and a photo ID
• Job assistance, including search tips and referrals to potential employers
• Help applying for Medicaid, which would be activated immediately upon release
• Mental health assessment and connections with clinics
• Connections to representatives from community-based programs, who might be able to meet individuals on the day they are released
• Help involving their families so they are prepared to provide the support their relative will need upon release. (Families would also have an opportunity to ask questions about their relatives’ parole requirements)
The Odyssey is a metaphor for life, a voyage of ups and downs, of challenges, sometimes involving captivity. On his way home, Odysseus, has to pass through a very treacherous strait, “Scylla and Charybdis” – oftentimes, a voyage fraught with dangers is the only way home. This part of the story has given us the phrase, “between a rock and a hard place.” This is the place that many people in prison and jail find themselves. They are looking for a way to successfully navigate from prison and jail back home, and it is our goal to help them along their journey.
This article was published in the Osborne Association’s Reentry Journal.