They are separated from their loved ones, often reduced to welfare, afraid to see friends and relatives, and uncertain about the future.
Forgotten in a wave of concern about the victims of crime, and often feeling like prisoners themselves, they are the families of criminals.
Often they find no solace even within their family or circle of friends. Adair Herrera, 24, of Santa Ana, who was planning to marry a man who went to prison, said that all she heard from family and friends was "how dumb you are and how you should forget this guy."
"It's a really traumatic thing to go through to have your husband taken from you and put in prison," said Mary Waggoner, 22, of Garden Grove, whose husband is serving an 11 1/2-year prison term.
Herrera, Waggoner and other spouses of inmates have sought help from a little-known organization called Friends Outside, which aids families of jail and prison inmates and helps former offenders get on the right track when they are released.
"The primary focus of Friends Outside is on the family unit and keeping it together," said Joseph Ossman, national director of the Salinas-based organization, which now has 21 chapters in California, Nevada and Idaho since its creation in 1954.
The group directs destitute families to the right community services for such things as food, clothing and counseling; it provides children of prisoners with role models and such positive experiences as camping trips; it works to keep family members in touch with prisoners.
"When a prisoner's family stays together, that prisoner has a better chance of not re-offending again," Ossman said. "The family is the primary rehabilitative tool. Studies have shown that if a prisoner's family stays together, that prisoner is several times less likely to be in prison within a year after his release."
The effort to lessen recidivism is important, he said, because 97% of all inmates eventually return to the community.
Wives Live in Terror
"The people who get into jail have less experience with human kindness than anybody else," Rosemary Goodenough, founder of the group, said when she was trying to set up an Orange County chapter in 1971.
"There's nothing so vulnerable as a young woman living alone without a husband with small children. Wives of prisoners often live in mortal terror of their neighbors. . . . And what a terrible thing it is to have your father in prison."
In fact, said Pam Haggert, 38, of Fullerton, it is the alienation and shame most spouses feel that often lead to divorces. Haggert, who met and married a former convict and shared his difficulties in adjusting to life after prison, often talks with and helps families of inmates.
She recently helped Friends Outside set up a women's support group, a new service offered by the local chapter. "Just to be able to sit down and explain with other women what you're going through is great," Haggert said. "You can become more bitter, more angry, if you don't talk it out."
Waggoner said she was looking for support after the Air Force put her husband in a military prison on drug charges last year and even threatened her with prosecution. She was forced out of the service last January and was left with a 2 1/2-year-old daughter to support but with no money or job skills.
Unable to get a job, Waggoner said, she found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. She learned about Friends Outside and went to the county chapter in Orange to find others like herself.
Creation of Added Burden
"I figured there were a lot of women out there having a hard time," she said. "I found out there are a lot of women worrying about husbands, and if they have children, that creates added burdens.
"I talked with a woman who was in a whole lot worse shape than I was in. That made me realize I was not alone and that others are going through the same symptoms, the same things I was.
"I don't like to be angry when I feel hurt, and my husband hurt me by putting me in this position," she said. "By talking it out in the support group, it kind of soothed the anger."
For Herrera, Friends Outside helped her visit her fiance in the state prison at Soledad, where he started serving a 15-year term two years ago. The organization provides Greyhound bus tickets at a 25% discount and has homes for spouses at $10 a night near a number of institutions.
Herrera even moved to Soledad for four months, but left last January when she called off the wedding.
"I couldn't keep my mind on my studies," she said. "I'm just a nurse's aide, but I should have been a registered nurse by now. I'm back on track now, but it took a long time to get back because there was so much emotional bull."
Herrera said it was talking to the spouses of other inmates and seeing what they were going through that convinced her that she "didn't want to live this way." She also said she saw a "sweet man" being turned into a hardened prisoner.