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Supporting Families of Prisoners

By Sharon Harty of CASP, first published in ‘Changing Ireland’, issue 29.

Although the circumstances can vary, family members’ reactions to their loved ones or partners being sent to prison can be similar. Some partners can be living in dread of this happening whilst for others it comes as a complete shock. For some it isn’t a new experience.

REARING CHILDREN WHEN A PARENT IS IN PRISON

Many arrests take place in the home. This can be very traumatic, especially if children are present.

Even very young children and babies who do not understand what is happening will be affected, because they may pick up on anxieties and emotions of the adults in their lives and subconsciously know that all is not well.

Older children may be just as traumatized, especially when their friends get to hear about it.

Children may worry about where their parent(s) are. Will s/he be coming back, etc? They may also feel they are in some way responsible for the person being sent away. If some of these fears can be dispelled, then the child(ren) will be happier and more content.

There are no easy ways to get children to talk about their fears and anxieties. Some suggestions are:

  • Make time to listen to children, allow them to ask questions and make time for tears and anger. They will feel valued and you will hear a lot.
  • Respect them as individuals – no matter what age they are they have their opinions which should not be ignored.
  • Be honest and open with them.
  • Share your own feelings. If you are upset – say so. If you are angry, explain why. Don’t exclude them by saying nothing.
  • Seek advice – contact local family support / youth services for support in dealing with children and referrals to appropriate services, if necessary.

Children are bound to ask questions that will have to be dealt with, and it is usually better to tell them the truth, explaining it in a way that they will understand. But some parents decide to tell the children that the person has gone away to work or to hospital. This can be difficult to maintain for long, especially if you want to bring them to visit the prison. A very small child may believe that the prison is a hospital or a factory but the older they grow the more difficult this pretence will be to maintain. Other children at school may tell your child the truth anyway. It would be more hurtful coming from them than it would be from you and you won’t be there to support your child and explain the situation and help him or her come to terms with it.

Some children with a parent in prison may start becoming babyish, fretful, clingy, isolated, anxious, attention seeking or aggressive. Children will cope best if given love, understanding and time to express themselves.

Some children however may be perfectly comfortable with the facts of imprisonment and may even bring it up at inappropriate moments, something that parents need to be prepared for.

Mothers with partners in prison can be tempted to compensate their children for the loss of their father by spending more than they can afford on birthdays and Christmas. Similarly, they may spend more than they can afford on things for their partner in prison. They might also hide from their partner the extent of their debts for fear of causing anxiety. However, some women may feel they are better at managing money without their partner, especially if their partner had an alcohol or drug problem.

CHILDREN VISITING PRISON

Some family members of people in prison may prefer not to bring children with them on a first visit so that they can adapt to a potentially stressful situation for the first time by themselves, and then assess how the children might cope if brought on the next visit. On the other hand, you may feel that it is important that the children see their family member and may find the meeting reassuring after all the recent traumas.

If you do decide to take children, it is a good idea to prepare them for being searched by practicing ‘standing like a tree’.

Most children show some form of behavior which is not normal for a child as a result of a parent being sent to prison. Pre-visit behavior can include sickness, irritability, excessive quietness or over excitement.

Older children and teenagers can get fed up with some aspects of visiting, in particular searches and the sitting around. Teenagers can be too self-conscious to be open with their families when others are present. Take the opportunity to go to the toilet or get a drink so that a teenage visitor gets time alone with their parent and the opportunity for more private conversation.

Don’t force the young person to come on the visit and don’t make them feel guilty if they do not want to go. Encourage them to keep in touch through letters.

MAINTAINING FAMILY LIFE

If your partner is in prison, it can be easier following release if the imprisoned partner is kept involved with all aspects and responsibilities of family life and changes taking place on the outside while they are in prison.

PRISON IS TOUGH ON RELATIONSHIPS

When a partner enters prison, the family becomes a one parent family and must adapt to a new way of life, including one parent looking after the children on their own, keeping in touch with the imprisoned partner and visiting the prison. Some partners believe that they have to be strong for their children and that it is unfair to burden their partner with the harsh reality of what it is like to cope on the outside without them. It can be felt that the prisoner is powerless to solve these problems from inside the prison.

It can be tough maintaining a relationship with a partner in prison and it can be even harder if there were problems in your relationship before your partner entered prison. The first visit or two may feel overwhelming because you will have so many practical things to talk through.

However, there can be comfort in looking forward to the visits, to know that in spite of the separation you can still see each other and share things together. Visits can be the high point of the week for prisoners. Good visits can comfort and sustain both partners until the next visit.

Undoubtedly, some couples will run into difficulties, as do some when neither one is in prison. Maybe the partner did not know about their partner’s activities before being convicted and this may result in feeling betrayed and a lack of trust.

SHAME AND GUILT

For some families, the nature of the offence is a source of shame, in particular sexual abuse offences and other violent crimes, though it can go across the board.

It is very difficult for some families to cope if there has been newspaper and TV coverage of the case and the sentence. Children especially can find this very disturbing, and some women partners feel a great sense of guilt, as if the offence was somehow their fault.

Other families report being harassed by neighbours, or getting anonymous abusive phone calls and notes pushed through their letterbox. It may be useful for individuals and families in this situation to keep a record of dates and events. If a situation requires the involvement of the Gardai or the local authority, a dossier of events would be very helpful.

It is normal for family members of people in prison to feel angry, let down, disappointed and ashamed. These feelings are normal and family members should try to remember that they are not guilty – no matter what other people think or say.

PRACTICAL ISSUES

After the shock of the guilty verdict, family members may be faced with other issues such as money problems and transport to the prison, in particular, if the prisoner was on bail rather than being remanded in custody.

In most cases, the prisoner’s solicitor will be able to pass on information to families regarding which prison s/he is being sent to.

The first visit to the prison can be worrying and frightening:

  • Going through different doors that are locked behind the person.
  • Visitors are asked to leave everything behind in a locker and only take the locker key and a small amount of cash in your hand.
  • All visitors including children and babies will be searched. They are patted down and a small hand metal detector (like those at airport security checks) will be held close to each person and passed over and around them.
  • As part of the search process, visitors are asked to stand in line with other visitors. The drug detection dog will be walked on a leash along the line. It lets the handler know if it detects something which might mean that the person indicated has had recent contact with drugs.
  • Those caught with drugs in their possession can be brought immediately to a Garda station and formally charged for this offence. Apart from the legal and moral reasons, the presence of the drug detection dog can be used as a reason for a visitor to refuse to carry in drugs for a prisoner.

If a visitor refuses to be searched, they are refused entry to the prison.

It can be an unnerving experience and can make some people feel like they have done something wrong. It is important for visitors to remember that everyone feels like this and the officers are only doing their jobs.

CAREFUL WHO YOU TALK TO

If you are feeling lost and need to talk to someone, it can be tempting to discuss your worries with someone in the same ‘boat’. However, it is advised to be a little careful until you know them better. Gossip travels fast within the prison and if you tell something to the partner of a prisoner, she may repeat it to her partner and it may get back to your partner, perhaps being misinterpreted along the way.

It can be helpful to speak to someone outside the family, someone whose feelings you don’t have to feel responsible for.

If you are a family member of someone in prison and would like to speak to someone in confidence, you could ask to speak to the welfare services attached to the specific prison you are visiting. In the Dublin region, there are a number of prison links workers whose contact details are available through the Local Drug Task Forces. Local community development initiatives or family support services may also be able to offer support and guidance in relation to this issue.

CASP IN BRIEF

Clondalkin Addiction Support Programme (CASP) is a community based addiction treatment service which was founded in 1995, when it was set up by members of the local community in response to the high usage of illegal drugs in the area.

From its initial home in Quarryvale Co-operative and Quarryvale Community Centre, CASP developed a range of programmes focussing on the broad range of individuals affected by addiction. CASP provides a holistic community based service focusing on the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of drug users and their families in North Clondalkin.

The service is open from 9.30am to 9pm five days a week, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings for medication.

Sharon Harty is a Community Development Worker with CASP.

Contact info: T. 01-6166750. W: www.casp.ie Address: Clondalkin Addiction Support Programme, Muriel BoothmanCenter, Ballyowen Meadows, Fonthill Rd, Clondalkin, Dublin 22

SERVICES PROVIDED LOCALLY BY CASP

  • Outreach
  • Community Development
  • Detoxification/Maintenance Programme
  • Healthcare
  • Counselling
  • Family Support
  • Day /Evening Programmes
  • Aftercare/Recovery Programme
  • Holistic Care, Acupuncture and Healing
  • Mentoring
  • Community Prison Liaison
  • Respite
  • Needle Exchange Service
  • Food, hygiene, health and referral service to those who are homeless
  • Training and development programme through CE, Fas programme

CASP have developed an information booklet for parents, partners and family members of people in prison which includes common questions about the prison system and how it operates. Please phone CASP: 01 6166750 for copies.