Life after jail: Memphis wives of formerly incarcerated men share stories and support

Since his release in 2006, Vinessa Brown and her husband, Pastor DeAndre Brown, have started their own non-profit, Lifeline to Success, a re-entry program for former inmates.

As the wife of a former prisoner, Memphian Crystal DeBerry knows the toll that having an incarcerated partner can leave on the women left behind.

“I identified a lot of mental health concerns in regards to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and depression, as well as financial difficulties, from going through this (having an incarcerated partner) on a personal level,” DeBerry said.

DeBerry’s husband, Torey — who was her boyfriend at the time — was incarcerated from 2013-2015 in the Forrest City Arkansas Correctional Institution for violating his probation. During his incarceration, DeBerry had to raise three kids, deal with costly prison phone calls and downsize from her house to an apartment. Even though she was shocked by his arrest and imprisonment, she stayed with him, because she said God instructed her to, and the couple married while he was in prison.

DeBerry is one of millions of black women who have experienced having an incarcerated loved one. A 2015 study published by the Harvard Du Bois Review titled, “Racial Inequalities in Connectedness to Imprisoned Individuals in the United States” found that 6 million black women in the U.S. have an incarcerated relative. According to the study, women can face economic, social and health-related issues such as managing family finances, dealing with depression and facing stigma in their communities.

DeBerry knew that there had to be other women dealing with the effects of having an imprisoned loved one, and she wanted to help.

“If a loved one is incarcerated, we still need to take care of the families that are left behind, particularly the women,” DeBerry said. “(I wanted) to just provide an outlet for women going through this to express themselves without feeling judged.”

So, in 2014, she started Indomitable Women of Incarcerated Men — a monthly support group that connects women with community resources and allows them to discuss different topics, such as establishing positive communications with an incarcerated loved one.

DeBerry said that it’s important for these women to have an outlet for their feelings.

“You can see the symptoms manifest physically from keeping it in, such as depressed moods and being sick and tired all the time,” DeBerry said. “We try to encourage ladies to come on (out). Whatever you want to talk about (we can). If you want to cry, we’ll cry. If you want pray, we’ll pray.”

University of Memphis philosophy professor Bill Lawson, who teaches courses in African-American, political and social philosophy, said that incarceration can have a devastating social effect for those left behind and those who are incarcerated.

“It destroys families,” Lawson said. “It destroys a whole social network. It creates people who are disconnected once they come out of prison. That’s got to be devastating to any community.”

Women who have incarcerated partners may face many challenges and frustrations, and there may often be times when they are in need of support or an outlet to vent their feelings.

Learning to Cope

        Assisting Families of Inmates — a Virginia-based organization with affiliates across the U.S .— advises women with incarcerated partners to do some of the following things:

  • Take advantage of community support groups.
  • Seek support from family and friends.
  • Follow through on personal goals and don’t put your life on hold.
  • Continue with family routines and traditions. (i.e. still celebrate holidays; just find creative ways to involve the incarcerated partner).
  • Set financial and emotional limits (visits, phone calls, financial support while in prison).
  • Find balance in life and don’t focus all the energy on the incarcerated partner.

‘I felt like I was locked up.’

Memphian Vinessa Brown has experienced having an incarcerated loved one twice in her lifetime. Brown’s ex-husband, who’s been in prison for 23 years, is currently incarcerated in California, and her current husband (who was her live-in boyfriend at the time he was incarcerated), DeAndre Brown, was incarcerated for 25 months, starting in 2003, for forging checks. He spent nine months in the Shelby County Penal Farm and served the rest of his sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas.

“You’re incarcerated with whoever is in there,” Brown said. “When you go visit, there’s a long process of getting checked in. When you sit there and visit, and (then) you have to leave, there’s the sorrow of having to leave, and you don’t know what’s going to happen when they have to go back in there.”

DeAndre’s incarceration wasn’t a surprise to Brown.

“When we started dating six months prior to his arrest, he was honest and told me ‘The FBI is looking for me,’” Brown said. “I didn’t believe him. He’d been a Rhodes College scholarship student, he was singing in the Lemoyne-Owen Gospel Choir and I’d met a lot of his friends. So, nothing clicked (about what he said), but he told me.”

However, his incarceration came at a difficult time for her. She had to deal with a mortgage, uterine cancer, medical bills and raising her two children, as well as offering emotional support to one of DeAndre’s two sons.

Brown said having another loved one in jail felt like déjà vu. Yet, just as she had made sure that her daughter from her first marriage stayed connected with her father while in California, she also made sure that her adopted son stayed connected to DeAndre, who had become his father figure before his incarceration.

“Mothers can’t do it all,” Brown said. “A male figure is very important. I made sure that the men were in the children’s lives, (so that) even behind bars, they could be fathers…The hard part is you don’t have that access when something (else) goes on or when the world is falling all around you and you need to hear their voices. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”

Despite the difficulty, Brown stayed with DeAndre, because she said God told her to, and she visited him every chance she had.

Brown said it’s important for women who have incarcerated loved ones to have some form of support.

“I felt like I was locked up,” Brown said. “If you don’t have someone to talk about your feelings with, they get bottled up. You have to have a positive outlet.”

For Brown, the outlets came in different forms, such as writing out her feelings.

Another outlet came through the bond she developed with a woman who’s experience of having an incarcerated loved one seem to parallel her own life—Consuela Levy.

“I knew things would get better.”

         Levy, a Memphis native, said before her husband, Kevin, was incarcerated from 2003-2007 for forging checks, her life was “peaches and cream.” All her bills were paid, and everything seemed normal with her family. However, things took a turn after her husband’s incarceration. Financial struggles caused the mother of five to have to move from her home into her mother’s house.

Although Levy said she was completely blindsided by her husband’s incarceration —s he had no knowledge of his illegal actions — she was determined to stick by him and maintain a positive attitude.

“He was my husband, I loved him and I wanted us to continue to be a family,” Levy said. “I knew that things would be better once he was released. I had no doubt in my mind that things would get back on track. We were praying people. We believed God could do anything but fail.”

Levy made the 2 ½ hour trip every Saturday to visit her husband in the Forrest City Arkansas Correctional Facility. “The visitations weren’t as rough as you would think, because I had already thought about it (the incarceration), and we had talked over the phone about what happened,” Levy said. “The visitations were more uplifting. We talked about the kids, what the church was doing, and things of that nature. I never left with a negative thought.”

It also helped that she formed a bond with Brown.

“Her (boyfriend) and my husband became friends,” Levy said. “Both of us were going through the same things. We had a lot in common at that time.”

Levy said that it’s essential for women who have incarcerated loved ones to have support.

“To not have that support would probably cause you to give up or be a bitter person,” Levy said. “It’s important to have someone to confide in. It keeps you sane.”

“There (can be) so many positive outcomes if you just stick with them.”

Some women whose relationships last can see transformative results, if and when their loved ones are released.

DeBerry said that since her husband’s release last year, they’ve been re-adjusting their lives. Her husband is pursuing a business venture, and the couple is looking forward to having more family time.

After his release in 2006, Brown and DeAndre got married, he became a pastor, and the couple later started their own non-profit called Lifeline to Success, a re-entry program for former inmates. The couple now has eight children.

Brown said that although having an incarcerated loved one isn’t ideal, sometimes it can yield positive results later on.

“I want people to understand that it (having an incarcerated loved one) might be a negative situation, but there (can be) so many positive outcomes if you just stick with them and stay strong with them,” Brown said. “I’ve never been a cheerleader of both men doing the stuff that they did, but if someone does wrong, you don’t (necessarily) let them go and leave them.”

Levy said that since her husband’s release, he has become a pastor and started a printing company, and she looks forward to their future.

“He’s grown a lot, and things have been uphill,” Levy said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Although some relationships survive incarceration, others aren’t able to endure. A 2011 Oxford Journal study found that each year of incarceration increases the odds of divorce by 32 percent.

However, regardless of whether or not a woman chooses to stay, support seems to be the common factor that is needed to help women deal with the often devastating effects of having an incarcerated partner.

There are also discussions about potential societal solutions regarding the effects of incarceration, underway at the political level. Debates have surfaced over the 1994 crime bill that presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, once championed. Among other things, the bill expanded the death penalty, encouraged states to limit prison sentences and eliminated federal funding for inmate education. Clinton herself has even denounced policies such as the bill.

Also, earlier this year, President Obama called for an end to solitary confinement of juveniles. Last year, President Obama commuted the sentences of dozens of non-violent offenders who he believed were unfairly sentenced under mandatory minimum sentences regarding crack.


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About the Author

Brittney Gathen
Brittney Gathen’s motto is, “Work hard. Play if you have time.” Gathen has interned with the Memphis newspaper The Tri-State Defender since 2013. There she writes articles on various topics regarding African-Americans. She is involved with the National Association of Black Journalists, Professional Assertive United Sisters of Excellence, Black Scholars Unlimited and Tigers 4 Le Bonheur. Gathen’s goal is to work in either the journalism or marketing fields.

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