I interviewed Rosanne Clausen at the International Prisoners Family Conference. She is the founder and president of Strong Prison Wives and Family. You can listen to her interview here:
(Minor edits for readability)
Julia: It’s so great to finally meet you! Could tell us a little bit about your group?
Rosanne: Actually, I developed the organization as a YouTube channel back in 2011. I was just doing this on my own for so long and I felt so alone. I felt like nobody understood me. I felt like my friends and my family at best, we’re outwardly supportive, but really weren’t at all. And at worst, I had people say cruel, hateful, hurtful things to me. Even things like when I would go to visit, I didn’t know what to wear. I didn’t know what to do, it was hard. So I figured I would use my experience to help other people. My husband was given 213 years sentence. They stacked federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, so nobody has heard or anything like that. So he had this life sentence.
Rosanne: Now, I’m stuck trying not to become bitter against the system that just basically took my husband away from me. So I use this as a tool to do something constructive with that. And then I met this girl online who was running a blog. She was asking for guest authors at the time and I said, sure, I’d love to write for you. And together we became really friendly. We hit it off, and we developed this organization together.
Rosanne: About a year later, her husband was awarded an early release and she got pregnant. She wound up having her son very, very premature. So she had to give it all up. She had to move in to the hospital. She was there for several months and she said, “I can’t do this anymore, do you want to take it? Do you want to pull it down? Whatever you want to do.” And I said, “I just could not bring myself to pull it down because there were so many people out there in my shoes that needed it, that needed the support.” So it grew and it grew on its own. And other people volunteered with me who became admins on our pages, and such amazing people that lived so against the stigma. So in 2015, we incorporated as a non-profit and we’ve just grown from there.
Julia: Well, it sounds like you’ve helped so many people. I mean there’s so many people out there that when it does happen and a loved one is arrested, incarcerated, goes to court, that there’s really nothing out there that helps you go through it. So having other people that have been through it and sharing the information is so helpful. Absolutely.
Rosanne: Yeah. And I know you’re big on empathy and it’s one thing to have somebody say, yeah, I get it. Or I support you, but it’s so different when it’s somebody who walks the walk with you, who can really feel the pain that you’ve felt to have them give you that support and that loving virtual hug.
Julia: And there’s a lot of people here at the conference I think that have the same feelings that have different groups and are helping people. What’s your experience here? Is this your first time at the conference?
Rosanne: This is my second time. And my experience has been amazing both times. We keep ourselves so hidden from the world because of that stigma and the judgment. So the fact that you could just be you here and open, and I know somebody had said it earlier and we were all sitting at dinner with the girl that was presenting the first time I was here. We were sitting at dinner, and we all had our phones out and somebody’s husband called and they were like, oh, oh no. Do I answer it? And we said, “What do you mean? Of course you have to answer it. Are you kidding?” And it’s just that love and that support and we feel like we’ve all known each other for so many years because we have this common bond. It’s been wonderful.
Julia: So for anybody that’s listening out there that doesn’t understand that when somebody gets a collect call from the prison, it’s not like you can call back. So if it’s your loved one, your husband, your sibling, whoever it is that’s calling you and you see that it’s them coming from the prison, it’s great to be around people that understand trusted friends, people here at the conference, people in your group that you have to take it. And it’s not a rude thing. So it’s just something that we understand and I wanted to explain that because there’s a lot of things that we understand here that a lot of people might not, things like what do you wear. You explained that on YouTube, right?
Rosanne: Yep. So the first time I went there, I was wearing wire in my bra. It was a summer and I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and I was wearing flip flops.
Rosanne: You’re not allowed to wear no sleeves. You have to pass a metal detector that’ll set it off if you have a wire in your bra and you have to have closed toed shoes. So even silly little things like that, you have no clue. And that’s what this was built for from little things like that to hey I don’t know how to write a parole letter, to I think she’s using me, he’s asking me for a lot of money and money’s getting lost and that kind of stuff. So we run the gamut with each other.
Julia: Right. With all the women in your group that you speak to. There are several people here from Strong Prison Wives that have told me their stories and everybody’s story is different. Everybody’s coming from a different place. So when you get all the women together and you do girls night in. Could you tell our audience about that?
Rosanne: So the weekends are usually when you’re off of work and you’re relaxing and you’re going out with your loved one to dinner or you’re going out with family or friends. Well, these women don’t have that. That was ripped away from us and it becomes a depressing time and a lot of us, you know, we kind of feel guilty going out, especially in the beginning. He’s in jail suffering, he’s miserable. I need to be miserable. We put ourselves in prison as well. So to combat that we developed a little program called girls’ night in. Now, our members are all over the world, so we can’t meet in person yet. So we do it online. We use this platform called Zoom and people can call, they can either call it on the phone or they could do a video chat and we just use our webcams and we’d talk about whatever you want to talk about, girl stuff, prison stuff, you name it.
Rosanne: And now it’s once a month. We started two months ago where we’re doing them a little bit more organized where we’re presenting a topic to teach people. The last one I think we did budgeting. We had a photographer talking about how to take better pictures to send inside to your loved one, that kind of stuff.
Julia: Well I think that’s wonderful and it’s a good way for people to feel connected with other people. And talking about connections, have you made any connections here at the conference?
Rosanne: Yes. I’ve met so many people. I was just talking to somebody from the ACLU, I was talking to somebody from California who has a program for children, and Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson.
Julia: Yes from DC Project Connect
Rosanne: Yes, I saw her here and we’ve been connected for years and years working together. So it’s so nice to actually meet people and give them a hug.
Julia: This is a really great place to collaborate and I think that coming out here really opens your eyes to how many people are affected. And also there’s so much to learn from each other. So I just want to thank you for taking the time. Are there any last words that you want to say to people out there?
Rosanne: What you just said just sparked something. There’s so much stigma that exists around prison wives and family members and we’re uneducated or we can’t speak well or anything like that, and this right here is proof. This conference is proof that we live against the stigma. We’re not all like that and there’s so much talent and there’s just so much love among all of us and I love it. I think it’s great. Thank you so much for having me.
Julia: You’re welcome. And we are real people.
Rosanne: Yes, absolutely.
Julia: We are neighbors. We are servers, we are post people.
Rosanne: Yeah. I’m very in the closet at work. People don’t know about my situation and they made a comment, like a really derogatory comment of something about prison, I tell them, you know, one in every eight men have somebody that they’re related to in prison. One in every four women. You just insulted somebody in this room. Me, but I’m sure other people in this room that have no idea. We’re real people. I love that you said it like that.
Julia: Yes. And it’s the hidden sentence and we’re working on making it unhidden, making it so people can talk about it without feeling shame or a fear and giving people their power back so that they can go forth and live good lives while they’re going through something traumatic.
Rosanne: Yes. Thank you.