Friday, 19 November 2010

Loving the Unloved - some reflections on the lives and struggles of prisoner's families.

This was orginally published on the No More Prison Website

By Beth - the partner of a prisoner reflects of the harsh reality of prisons on partners and loved ones as well as prisoners

Before prisons became places where people were isolated from society they were semi-open, chaotic environments where whole families lived within the walls of the jail and people came and went selling goods, alcohol and sex. The song "Here we go round the mulberry bush" originates in Wakefield prison where the children use to dance around the mulberry bush which still stands there.
Pain Inside and Outside

The reforms of the nineteenth century partly came about because of concern about the supposed immorality of these environments, the sex and drunkenness, the corruption and mess in which people were seen to be living. So it was deemed that in prisons needed to be orderly places where people contemplated the error of their ways and received correction without the distractions of sex, family, relationships, drink, gambling and so on. Although rules around silence were eventually ended in the early twentieth century, much of the nineteenth century ethos of separation and moral living still prevail. Today in prisons the language used to justify such restrictions and deprivations may have changed to talk of security, risk, safety, rehabilitation and so on but the basic principle that removing wrong-doers from society and separating them from their loved ones is the right way to deal with crime remains in place and almost universally unchallenged.

The current reformist attitude towards the separation of prisoners from their loved ones and the treatment of prisoner's families mostly focuses upon the difficulties families face in visiting prisons and the hardships of travelling long distances and the lack of provision for children and so on. In six years of contact with organisations that support prisoners' families I have yet to hear any direct challenge to the monumental failure of this policy of separating and caging human beings. It is also extremely rare for anyone connected with reform to acknowledge that one of the main reasons why this situation is such a failure and causes more harm than good is because people are systematically brutalised and humiliated in the name of public protection. Reformists are so busy trying to get on the right side of the almighty prison service in order to extract some crumbs from the table to have a family visit or buy some toys that they fail to truly confront the prison service about the totally unacceptable levels of cruelty that thousands of people are subjected to because the love someone who they have caged.
Prisoners Families are powerless

Lets be completely clear about this, most prisoners' families have very little power, status, money or support. The imprisonment of a loved one is not something that people tend to protest about, except in some cases of miscarriages of justice, because the simple truth of the matter is that if you had any power before your were in that situation, it is certainly almost none existent once you are. You effectively have no rights to privacy in your relationship with your caged family member and getting information, support and your voice heard becomes almost impossible because you are forever worrying that if you object or make too much of a fuss it will simply mean that you don't get a visit or you will be targeted or your loved one will be punished in some way. You become grateful for any crumbs on offer and relieved when at the new prison the screws are reasonably pleasant, rather than actively hostile.

Prison is destructive not reformative

How come reformists so rarely acknowledge that prison is mostly about pain and punishment and it brutalises everyone connected with it. I really don't accept the view that prison staff simply need to be more aware of our problems and the role we play in rehabilitation. Prison has nothing to do with rehabilitation. If it happens at all it happens despite what is being done to prisoners not because of it. If we are the single biggest factor in determining re-offending rates then how come we are treated, for the most part, like dirt? I think that it is mostly because the Criminal Justice System is not primarily concerned with what actually helps people to change and lead a more fulfilling and constructive life. If it was it would have acknowledged a long time ago that prison, by and large harms us all. It fails monumentally at the one thing it is supposedly there to do, "protect the public". Huge warehouses of suffering and humiliation protect no one.

One of the worst aspects of being the partner of a prisoner is reading about or hearing people talk about aspects of prison life that are the opposite of the true situation. One example of this is the recent nonsense in the tabloid press about prisoners being paid to play scrabble. We talked about this on the Prison Chat UK site and people feel crazy with hurt when they read stuff like that because the truth is that thousands of us are making big sacrifices to send money to our loved ones so that they can have some basic comforts or buy food to compensate for the rubbish so many of them are expected to eat in jail.

Many of us face stigma and prejudice from family, friends and co-workers. People in this situation frequently find that they are socially isolated and unable to share their experiences with people close to them. Even when we can share with others it is often difficult to convey even a small part of the misery of this experience. Eventually you find yourself protecting other people from the truth because it is impossible to tell others how bad this system is. We become like exiles, people who live in this society but do not belong here, who do not belong anywhere accept maybe with each another.

I think the greatest lie about the prison system is that its function is to anything but harm people. Even liberal reformists, like Ramsbottom, speak of prison BEING the punishment rather being punished in prison. The punishment is the removal of the person from society and from those who that person loves. In what way can that form of torture benefit anyone? It is torture, not only for the prisoner but for their children and other family members. After years of no privacy you begin to realse that THIS is what hurts most and as a family member you are doing the same sentence. You do it in the community, alongside other people who have no idea what that experience is like.

I have lost count of the number of times people have asked me about conjugal visits and whether we will be entitled to them if we marry or later in the sentence and it is extremely difficult to keep explaining to people that within prison itself there are no official periods of privacy ever at any stage under any circumstances.

Likewise I have lost count of the number of times I have had to explain that complaining about harassment from prison staff on visits is impossible because you are powerless to stop them abusing you. I call it the "but surely......" response, as in "But surely there is someone you could complain to about this" and I say "This is not like taking something back to a shop. This is a dictatorship" But for those who live in a supposedly liberal democracy these things are very hard to understand.
My belief is that the aspect of prisoners families that clashes most with the Prison Service and the society it supposedly serves is the fact that we love and care for people who are generally deemed to be unlovable and not worthy of respect.

By "love" I am not talking here about romance, although that may be part of our relationships. I am talking about spending years and years telling your caged relative that you see them as a human being worthy of love, compassion and understanding. I am talking about love as an active agent of change in which there is challenge and questioning as well as acceptance and trust. What prison does is diminish and humiliate people. My own experience has led me to question that response to law-breaking because from everything I have seen and read I know that does not work and if we are to find alternatives then we need to listen to those who are already actively involved in that alternative response to people this society locks up.
The other day we were talking on the Prison Chat site about what we loved about our partner, son, brother, father etc in jail and there was this great outpouring of stories about the strength, gentleness, wisdom and kindness of these men we are close to and it was incredibly moving to hear about these relationships that exist despite the walls and wire. It saddened me too because we are all diminished when a society divides people in to good and bad and does not examine its attitudes and the humanity it inflicts on those who have often suffered more deprivation and cruelty than most.

There is something particularly poignant about the end of a visit. You are standing there, hugging your loved one and you are both hoping that this hug will stay with the other until the next time and you look across the room and everyone is holding one another and the screws are trying to hurry you up and you think "This is madness".


Click here to visit Prison Chat UK