Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Family Unfriendly

On the 13th September 2006 the charity Action for Prisoners' Families (APF) announced it was launching its second "Family Friendly Prison Challenge". Like so many prison charities APF seems to be more concerned with legitimising imprisonment rather than supporting its victims. Beth, the partner of a serving prisoner gives her response...

I have been the partner of a prisoner for the past six years and have had plenty of opportunity to observe the way families are treated, both by the Prison System and by voluntary organisations connected to it. I want to just tell you a bit about my experiences, which are on-going and somewhat raw. Last year I became really disillusioned with Action For Prisoners Families, a feeling that had been growing for some time. I attended their AGM and found, to my dismay, that there was no platform given to any family member and the event was dominated by the giving out of gongs to Governors and Prison Officers from various prisons in recognition of their "family-friendly" initiatives. A play was performed which included that tired old theme of blaming prisoners for causing family breakdown.

I say this disillusionment has been growing for sometime because what I have observed and experienced is that the more liberal elements of the Prison Service, encouraged and supported by organisations like Action For Prisoners Families and the Prison Reform Trust tend to see families as "forgotten victims" who the Prison Service should be nicer to. There's this agenda of "lets encourage them to be more understanding", coupled with a fairly thinly disguised criticism of families for being involved with prisoners at all. I'm sure no one at Action For Prisoners Families or the Prison Reform Trust would ever acknowledge this but I have experienced first hand the subtle put-downs and criticisms. One worker who has been involved with both organisations, on meeting me started telling me how funny she found Catherine Tate's portrayal of a prisoner's partner. I have also come across that patronising stuff about how we always being pressurised in to sending in clothes.

If you mention the true scale of the abuse and humiliation to which prisoners friends and families are subjected then there is a certain embarrassed disbelief that I would imagine stems from spending far too much time at shindigs with prison staff and no time at all actually experiencing these humiliations firsthand.
How prison treats partners, children and friends of prisoners

Where's the outrage? I don't hear or see it. Most of us are just trying to survive and there's a definite reluctance to rock the boat because you don't know how that might affect your loved one. Here is just a small sample of what we face:
  • Telephone calls from prisons are substantially more expensive than normal phone lines.
  • Searching by drug dogs is routine in many jails, a humiliating experience that many visitors know is frequently inaccurate. I have been put on a closed visit after being in a train carriage that stunk of cannabis. I always take a change of clothes with me now, and I always feel nervous of the procedure.No one seems to know or care what psychological effects the long-term denial of privacy and intimacy in our relationships has on the mental well-being of thousands of human beings, denied the basic human dignity which others take for granted.
I barely look at screws now when visiting because I know that it does me no good at all to see the looks of disgust and judgement. This is a common experience and it still distresses me to hear of people being treated with such disdain. I just cannot agree that this is a "training" issue. Imprisonment is designed to cut people of from their loved ones and punish them with the torture of that separation. Visits represent a battleground for many screws because visitors are breaching that wall of separation. Visitors represent a failure to entirely cut off prisoners and totally punish them. Consequently the war on drugs is used as an excuse to conduct a war on visitors and prisoners. I would never have believed it possible that this was the case had I not seen it and experienced it over and over again for years on end.

I have been much more supported by the experience of being able to talk to other prisoners families via the Prison Chat UK website but also reading and hearing uncompromising criticism of this system helps me to survive it.

Prisons are family unfriendly

I am sick of seeing men women and children abused and humiliated by the Prison system. There is a general silence that surrounds so much of that pain and humiliation. Prisons cannot possibly be family friendly. They are designed to break up families, to separate people from those they love and to observe and threaten them constantly when they are together, with no respite. We know that family ties are the single biggest factor in preventing re offending but there is no consideration given to the maintenance of those ties, with some rare exceptions. The prisons run courses like "Family man" to encourage better parenting without any questioning of the manner in which prisons themselves undermine and, in many cases, destroy family life. Organisations like Action For Prisoners Families collude in these myths about the necessity of separation by saying that prisoners should be locked up nearer home or officers need training about the problems families face or we need better visitors' centres. What we need is to rethink the whole basis upon which we do this to people, most of them on low incomes and deprived of support and real justice. I find it hard to articulate it all here and to share even a small part of my sense of outrage and sorrow but I have also found great solidarity in talking to other visitors. Over and over again we say to one another "how can this go on like this?" and my answer is always that there are no votes in helping us and there is very little awareness out there about what we face.

Thank you for listening to me.

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