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Mental health takes a toll on the incarcerated — and their families

Michelle West is serving two life sentences plus 50 years on a federal drug charge. The experience has been tough on her but devastating for her family.
Illustration of an incarcerated woman speaking to another woman during a visit at a prison. The visitor is breaking into shards.
Having a loved one who is incarcerated can be emotionally stressful. The experience, however, is not rare.Kim Ryu for NBC News

Throughout her adult life, Miquelle West has hesitated to date. Dating might lead to love, which might lead to marriage. And Miquelle does not want to marry until her mother can walk her down the aisle.

Her mother, Michelle, now 60, has been incarcerated for almost three decades now. She was sentenced in 1994 to two life sentences plus 50 years in a drug conspiracy case, which held her responsible for the actions of her co-defendants, including one who committed a murder. It was her first offense.

Image: Miquelle West and her mother Michelle West at Disneyworld.
Miquelle West and her mother, Michelle West, at Walt Disney World. Courtesy of Miquelle West

“I feel more impacted by her incarceration now than when I was as a child, because now I don’t see an end to this,” said West, who lives in New York City and works as a fashion stylist. “I’ve been successful in my professional life, but I haven’t been able to focus on getting married or having kids, because I’m still trying to get my mom out of prison. It has ruined both of our lives.”

Having a loved one who is incarcerated can be emotionally stressful. The experience, though, is not rare. More than half of all Black American women, for example, have at least one incarcerated family member, and that experience can cause high levels of depression and psychological distress, according to a research paper published in February in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white Americans, according to an NAACP fact sheet. After decades of mass incarceration, this means  families and communities across the country  have struggled to fill the voids caused by imprisonment.

“From slavery, to lynching, to incarceration, generations of African American families have endured having their family members taken away. African Americans have had to learn how to compartmentalize this trauma and have survived, in part, due to their resilience,” noted the research paper, which also called this resilience “a double-edged sword as these experiences worsen health outcomes.”

Miquelle West understands this firsthand. 

“We’re both doing time in our own way,” she said of herself and her mother. “Certain things I can’t achieve because my mom is not present. But sometimes when you are fighting for something of this magnitude, it should take your time,” West said, talking while crying softly.

Miquelle’s uncle Marcel Mays — her mother's brother — was arrested with her mother and was convicted in the same drug conspiracy. He was released in 2010 after 16 years and five months in prison.

“Michelle doesn’t have an out date,” Mays said. “I always wonder: What does that feel like, not having an out date? I woke up with something to look forward to.”

Marion “Pete” Mays, Miquelle’s aunt who helped raise her, said she suffered years of depression after her siblings were incarcerated.

“My whole life was consumed with very dark days,” Marion Mays, 58, said. “Later on in life I have been able to seek help for this. This is something I have had to live with. It’s similar to death. It also causes grief. I haven’t lost my sister, but I’m losing time with her.”

She said that going to therapy helped her. “Journaling helped me. And my faith has helped me, too,” she said.

Evelyn J. Patterson, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and the lead researcher on the study about familial incarceration, said that most studies, as well as programs offering aid to people with incarcerated loved ones, focus on “children and also for mothers of young children whose fathers have been incarcerated. Far less attention has been paid to people in other familial roles like siblings or a daughter.”

Yet families of all types and on all levels have faced the mental stress of having relatives in prison.

“There really hasn’t been any point in American history where we have not had laws purposely meant to disrupt Black families,”  Patterson said.

Marcel Mays, who lives in the old family homestead in Detroit, said communication within his family has never been the same since he and his sister were imprisoned.

“You become estranged from your family,” he said. “All of us become so accustomed to not talking to one another. It becomes the norm.”

But he emails his sister Michelle about four times a week. “Prison is designed to break you mentally, physically and financially from your family. You are stripped from everything. It’s like slavery. I don’t really have a relationship with my nieces and nephews. I have great nieces and nephews I don’t even know,” Marcel Mays said.

He said he and his sister Marion seldom talk to an older brother, who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Marcel Mays’ mother died of a heart attack seven days after he was released in 2010. It angered him that people said she wanted to see him come home before she died. “It was as if, had I stayed in prison, she would still be alive — or like she didn’t want to see Michelle free,” he said.

Miquelle West is Michelle’s only child. She was 10 in 1993 when her mother dropped her off at her Detroit elementary school. That was the last time daughter and mother would be together outside of a prison. West was raised by her grandmother and aunt.

Over the years, Miquelle West has devoted much of her time fighting for her mother’s freedom. She has appeared on radio and television broadcasts and in newspapers and magazines, all of which she understands is a privilege not afforded the loved ones of most people who are incarcerated. The organization Can-Do Justice Through Clemency, has also repeatedly called for West’s release. But Miquelle is frustrated that nothing she has done has led to her mother’s freedom.

In 2015 Miquelle West was invited to a clemency summit at the White House during President Barack Obama’s last term to plead for her mom. However, the Obama administration rejected West’s request for clemency. Still, she said she does not regret one day spent fighting for her mother.

“Maybe some people are to get married, have kids. God put me on earth to fight for people who are wrongly imprisoned,” Miquelle said. “Some people live their life and don’t know their purpose. I knew my purpose very young. I knew the day I discovered my mom had gone to prison." 

The story of the Wests was featured in the bestselling book “Humans of New York,” with the elder West writing from prison at the time: “My sister told me that after graduation, when everyone else was taking photos with their family, my daughter just broke down and cried. When she visits, she tells me that she feels too guilty to start a family because I won’t be there to see it.”

After high school, Miquelle moved from Detroit to New York City to be near the federal prison where her mother was incarcerated at the time, so she would be able to visit more often.      

In between visits, West worries about her mother. And the past year was particularly stressful, as prisons locked down because of the pandemic. At times, she said visits and even phone calls were forbidden.

Image: Michelle West, her mother, brother Marcel Mays, and sister Marion Mays
Michelle West, her mother, Miquelle, her brother, Marcel Mays, and her sister, Marion Mays.Courtesy of Michelle West

“To have a loved one incarcerated is to be in a state of constant concern, anxiety, depression, worry,” said Laura B. Morse, a psychotherapist in Atlanta. “You’re always wondering: Will they be safe? With Covid, we knew how fast it was progressing through these facilities.”

Michelle West did contract Covid-19 after being placed in a cell with two people who had the virus. On the day Miquelle spoke to NBC News, she was angry that her mother had been injured helping to move beds inside the prison. 

“I’m tired of the harsh treatment of my mom,” Miquelle said. “She’s up in age now and this thing hit her on the head. Why do you have women moving heavy metal beds?”

Her mother is better now. 

Image: Michelle West.
Michelle West.Courtesy of CAN-DO

In addition to worry, Morse, said relatives of people who are imprisoned often experience shame.

“The shame might come from most people making strong assumptions about people in jail or prison,” Morse said. “There’s this immediate judgement that they deserve to be there. So it closes people off, makes them hesitant to reach out for support and understanding.

“They even ask: Do I deserve support?” Morse said. A client who had a son who was incarcerated “couldn’t bring herself to tell me why. I knew it was a violent crime. You could see the pain and guilt in her.”

Michelle West’s sister, Marion Mays, lived with their mother. “I could see her anguish over Michelle. It was extremely hard to watch,” said Mays.

Marcel Mays believes he has dealt fairly well with the mental challenges associated with his sister’s incarceration.

“But you never know,” he said. “Maybe I should have sought therapy. I think if you do any time [in prison] maybe you should get therapy.”

Marion Mays recalled her own hesitation to talk to anyone after her siblings were arrested. 

“I didn’t mix and mingle with people. … I stayed secluded,” she said. “I was feeling lost, hurt, had anxieties, and did not want to go out. It was a very lonely time.”

Mays suggested Miquelle might benefit from therapy, but her niece was reluctant and only got a therapist last year during the pandemic. 

“I wasn’t sure anyone could understand this situation,” Miquelle said. She’s also turned to meditation to help her through the most difficult days.

“I still feel the absence of Michelle,” said Marion Mays. She last saw her sister two years ago and had considered visiting her for her birthday this year. But Michelle is now in California and Mays is in Detroit. She weighed whether the trip would be worth the cost.

“It’s a lot to fly into San Francisco and rent a car to go see my sister behind plexiglass for two hours,” Mays said.

The two communicate by email nearly every day. Mays sends her sister money every week.

“I could not survive and live in this free world without knowing my sister is OK,” Mays said. “I look at the things I have, and I ask myself, ‘Does she need new gym shoes?’"

“I like to say the most valuable possession we have in life is our time,” Mays said. “Not our money, it is our time. Sometimes I hear it in my sister’s voice that she wants to give up. But I tell her: ‘You can make it. You can come home.’”

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