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Invisible prison

Inmates’ families face many challenges

By Christina Quick

Ann Edenfield Sweet never expected to be the wife of a prison inmate.

The former cheerleading captain and college homecoming queen married a commercial airline captain who seemed to share her Christian faith. They and their four children lived in a spacious home in suburban Albuquerque, N.M., and actively participated in a local church.

But on Aug. 5, 1986, Sweet received a phone call that changed her life. Her husband had been arrested, taken to jail and charged with drug trafficking. Unaware he had ever engaged in illegal activities, the news stunned Sweet.

“The old me really died that day,” she says. “In many ways, I became a different person.”

Unfortunately, Sweet took on a new identity in the eyes of others as well. As news of the arrest spread, friends and neighbors avoided her. Parents no longer allowed their children to play with her young sons. She was asked to resign as a Cub Scout leader. She says even members of the church she and her husband had attended for 12 years kept their distance.

“Unless you’ve lived through it, you don’t know what it’s like to have people turn the other way and not return your wave when you pull into the cul-de-sac,” Sweet says. “As far as other people were concerned, my children and I were the guilty ones.”

With four boys between the ages of 6 months and 7 years, Sweet’s troubles had just begun. Within hours of her husband’s arrest, the family’s assets were seized. Sweet discovered while trying to buy groceries that she no longer had access even to her checking account.

“I literally became penniless overnight,” she says.

Sweet took a low-paying position working with youth at a large, downtown church. There she encouraged other women and children dealing with the stigma of a family member’s incarceration.

“My faith was the only thing that kept me going, and I tried to share that with others,” Sweet says.

Six years into her husband’s prison sentence, Sweet learned he had been approved for early parole and could be released in five months.

When Sweet told the new senior pastor her family soon would be reunited, she thought he would be happy for her. Instead, she says, he told her he could no longer be her pastor.

“I started sobbing,” she says. “I felt like this was the second church that didn’t want me. I knew God wasn’t kicking me out, but when a pastor rejects you and you no longer feel welcome in church, you’re tempted to think that way.”

Sweet left the church and took a job with an audiobook publishing company. She also launched a new ministry to help families such as hers make positive connections with local churches. Wings for LIFE hosts parties for inmates’ families and provides Christmas gifts, school supplies and other items for their children.

Sweet has written a book, Family Arrested: How to Survive the Incarceration of a Loved One, to help others navigate the penal system and the challenges of having a family member behind bars.

“It took me more than 13 years to be able to talk about my husband’s incarceration and the impact it’s had on my family without crying,” Sweet says. “My greatest freedom was in finally letting go of that pain and giving it to God.”

Though Sweet and her husband remained together four years after his release, the union eventually failed.

Studies have shown incarceration takes a heavy toll on marriage. Marriages that survive a prison sentence often dissolve after the spouse’s release.

Scott Jett, director of Shapes Mentoring Program, an Assemblies of God outreach for inmates’ children in southwest Missouri, says families of the incarcerated are a largely unreached mission field.

“Unfortunately, many people in the church are afraid to open themselves up to vulnerability,” Jett says. “They’re worried someone might steal from them or take advantage of them. But many times, what these families need most is to feel accepted and valued.”

Jett says families of inmates face “invisible bars” that can dramatically affect their quality of life. Most live below the poverty line, and studies indicate children of inmates may be at increased risk of being incarcerated during their lifetimes.

“They feel isolated and abandoned,” Jett says. “There are financial and emotional issues. And there is intense shame. To be the spouse or child of an inmate is to wear a label no one wants.”

Manuel Cordero, a Colora, Md.-based national correctional ministries representative for Assemblies of God U.S. Missions, agrees.

“They’re treated like they are also inmates, as if they are bad by association,” Cordero says. “They’re marginalized and ostracized. The greatest tragedy is when that happens in the church.”

Amelia Velazquez says discipleship is crucial in helping inmates’ families get past obstacles society and circumstances may place in their paths. She says her relationship with Christ provided an anchor when her husband went to prison on a drug conviction shortly after she became a Christian.

“What makes it difficult for women who don’t have a relationship with God is not having a purpose for the future or knowing what the future holds,” she says. “With God, you have hope and you can have the courage to continue.”

Velazquez says becoming involved in ministry herself also helped her cope. Throughout her husband’s incarceration, she led a ministry at a women’s prison.

“You really are serving time with the person inside,” she says. “But you can’t wait for that person to get out of prison to begin your life. You have to get involved with something that will bring fulfillment and help shift your focus from your problems to the needs of others.”

Velazquez and her husband, Alex Velazquez Jr., beat the odds by keeping their marriage intact. Alex Velazquez accepted Christ as Savior during his four years in prison. The two now serve as pastors at Oasis City Church, an AG congregation in Philadelphia.

“I know what it’s like to go to Christmas parties and be the only person there without a spouse,” Amelia Velazquez says.

Yet she says God’s presence was enough for her during that time. She tells other women she mentors that just as God was with the biblical patriarch Joseph during his imprisonment, He wants to help families of prisoners break through every barrier that stands in their way.

“A relationship with God is the starting point for true freedom,” she says.


CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Refrigerator Art (cquick.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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