Paying their debt: Spouses of prisoners face hardships

Three of 4 released convicts have problems finding steady jobs

SAN ANTONIO – The people put behind bars are supposed to be paying their debt to society, but their families on the outside are often paying, too.

When a family's main breadwinner goes to prison, it puts financial stress on the family. Suddenly, a family that might have been getting by all right is thrust into a desperate situation.

That's how it was for Monica Guerra.

"I stayed with two weeks without light, connecting from next door, connecting my fridge just to keep it on, putting candles around my house," said Guerra, whose husband is in state prison. "They turned off my water. So I faced ... that alone."

Life changed for Guerra in 2010 when her husband went to prison for DWI and a possession charge.

"I didn't have to worry about when that bill was due. I didn't have to worry about paying it. I didn't have to," she said of life before her husband was incarcerated.

Now the mother of four does have to worry about it. She says her husband was just denied parole again. So their family's struggle will continue.

The family income was cut by more than half when her husband went away. Now, the family does the best they can.

Guerra works side jobs. She pawns her jewelry, and she gets help from agencies like Christian Assistance Ministries. She says she's borrowed money, too.

Despite the family's struggles, Guerra says she doesn't qualify for most government assistance "because I was always a dollar or two more than what I should be making."

So why should you care about any of this if you don't know anyone who has served time? Because an ex-convict's ability to reintegrate into society impacts his or her likelihood to reoffend. Economic hardships make it much more difficult to make it in the outside world and force families into poverty. 

The head of the Texas Inmate Families Association, Jennifer Erschabeck, says strained finances aren't the only problem families face.

"There's a certain stigma associated with somebody who has someone in prison, and we don't talk about it with our friends and our co-workers," Erschabeck said.

She adds that supporting someone inside can take hundreds of dollars a month. For Guerra, that's money she doesn't have.

"And honestly, he sent me a list of stuff that he would need, and I wrote him back, 'I'm sorry. I can't,'" Guerra said.

Financial struggles aren't solved when the family member's sentence is up either. After they're out, three out of four convicts find gaining stable employment very difficult because they're required to disclose their conviction history.

Guerra's husband was out for a few months on parole before going back in, and she said the family still struggled.

"He was not able to get the job or the pay he was once making," she said.

When he gets out again, who knows? But for now, Guerra remains on her own, still struggling to make ends meet.

"You have to continue doing what you have to do," she said.

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