Half a lifetime ago I worked as a parole officer. One of my duties was to interview the families of prospective parolees. I'd get information for a narrative about the inmate's personal life, their background, education, community support and postrelease plans.
I'd sit on plastic-covered sofas in tidy living rooms straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting and hear stories that would curl your hair. There were the parents who, when their son was 9, installed a deadbolt on their bedroom door. That was after they woke to find him standing over them with an ice pick. And it was downhill from there.
I heard endless variations of "I don't know where we went wrong" and "we did all we could" and "he/she got in with the wrong crowd." I decided early-on if we could just rope in that particular wrong crowd, we could cut crime by 50 percent.
I'd leave an interview exhausted from the emotional workout, wrung out by the pain and heartache the family had experienced. I quickly learned that it was not just the inmate who did time. Parents and spouses suffered right alongside. They struggled to pay attorneys and made lengthy drives for visitation at distant institutions. They sent money for commissary accounts and accepted astronomically priced collect calls just so they could hear their family member's voice for a few minutes. I often felt they were being punished almost as much as the inmate.
All those experiences came back to me when, in the process of researching something totally unrelated, I stumbled across the Web site for Three Squares Greetings. It's a line of greeting cards designed for inmates and the people who care about them. Talk about niche marketing. The cards are straightforward and nonenabling.
One birthday card reads: "It's your birthday and I know that you'd rather be almost anywhere else right now. Hopefully, one year older will really mean one year wiser for you. Take care."
For New Year's, a card exhorts, "It's that time of year again. While doing your time, resolve to make better choices."
A Christmas card reads: "You had the choice to be ‘naughty or nice.' And you chose ... oh well, now you have to do your time. But, Christmas won't be the same without you here. Stay safe. Merry Christmas."
There are cards for Father's Day: "It is probably very difficult to be away from your kids today. But, try to remember that they love you more than you know. They send their love for Father's Day and every day."
Even though the number of incarcerated women is growing every year, I noticed there were no Mother's Day cards. They're probably in the works right now.
There are tough love cards: "When you called recently, I wasn't very sympathetic. I guess I've heard your promises to change too many times. Please - stop promising to change and just do it."
And messages of faith: "I wish I could get you to see that anger isn't the answer. God is the answer. He will help you get past the anger. Ask for His help in prayer."
Studies have shown that inmates who have strong family support are up to six times less likely to reoffend than those who do not. These cards help give words to difficult emotions.
"Parents are profoundly embarrassed when their kids mess up. Families are hurt. Friends don't know what to say ... You have someone who's broken the law, done something awful. This is a way to reach out, tell them you care, without ratifying their conduct," says Terrye Cheathem, the California attorney who designed the line.
She knows the feelings. She came up with the idea after failing to find an appropriate birthday card for a brother-in-law behind bars.
With 2.2 million Americans incarcerated, there aren't many of us who don't know at least one person in prison. One of my close friends in college, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who worked for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, is serving a life sentence for murder.
I never wrote because I didn't know what to say. Maybe I'll send a card.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.