Thursday, 31 July 2014

Serving the Second Sentence

The day a convicted person is sentenced to a term of imprisonment and led in handcuffs from the dock, he or she begins to serve that sentence. But as they make that long walk down to the cells under the court, they aren’t alone. A ‘second sentence’ has been imposed on their families and loved ones back in the community.

Crown Court
While it is true that some prisoners don’t have anyone ‘on the out’, they are in the minority. Most inmates leave behind family of some description: parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, partners, children, grandchildren, siblings… and they will all feel the impact of the prisoner’s absence in their lives. Of course, that will differ from family to family. As Leo Tolstoy so rightly observed: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Imprisonment brings with it a wide range of challenges for those left behind on the outside. There is often an economic crisis, particularly if the person who is in custody was the sole or main breadwinner. That can be even worse if they were the sole carer for someone elderly or disabled.

Then there is the question of housing. I’ve known of specific cases where the imprisonment of one family member has resulted in moves to evict entire families from their homes. Some social housing providers may consider that a criminal conviction is sufficient breach of a tenancy agreement to give notice of termination of a lease. It may not be a common occurrence, but it can happen and increase the stress for both the family and the prisoner – who may feel utterly helpless and guilt-stricken about what is happening to his or her family.

Beyond those practical issues, imprisonment brings with it a whole range of sorrows and stresses. Children are particularly vulnerable when a parent is sent to prison. The absence of the jailed parent, as well as pressures at school or in the neighbourhood if the case has received local, or even national, media coverage can cause enormous stress and anxiety. Yet little or no practical support is available to help kids in these situations.

Visits hall
Visiting the imprisoned family member can involve a range of additional problems. Many prisoners, particularly those serving lengthy sentences or lifers, are likely to be incarcerated many miles away from their families. I know numerous cons who haven’t been able to have visits from loved ones for years. Economic hardship (even if the family is eligible for financial help via the Assisted Prison Visits Scheme), difficulties of travelling with young kids or elderly or disabled family members and problems getting time off work to fit with the highly restrictive visiting times available at certain prisons can all play a role in limiting the contact a prisoner’s family can have with an inmate.

Visits themselves can also be highly stressful for some families, particularly if the con is held in the high security estate. Many prisoners feel ashamed of having their families and friends see them in these conditions… particularly if they are forced to wear grubby, badly fitting prison uniforms or coloured ‘bibs’ to identify them as inmates. Children can find such visits distressing, especially if they are body-searched by prison staff before being admitted to the visits hall.

What should be an opportunity to maintain family ties can sometimes end up as a period of stress, anxiety and depression. Some prisons now recommend that if family members are going to break bad news to an inmate that they notify the prison helpline first, so that staff can monitor the prisoner’s behaviour, especially if they may have a history of self-harm or attempted suicide.

Access to phones
Family emergencies – accidents, serious illnesses, deaths – can all involve additional trauma when a close family member is in prison. Difficulties in contacting them to discuss the situation can prove extremely frustrating and make the crisis worse. Not all establishments are helpful when it comes to making arrangements for prisoners to make compassionate phone calls or giving Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) under escort to visit dying relatives in hospital or to attend funerals. 

When I was working as an Insider I recall sitting for hours with a D-cat prisoner who was close to a mental breakdown because he had been refused ROTL on compassionate grounds to be with his wife in hospital while she was giving birth owing to a difficult medical situation that might have led to her death and the death of their child. He simply couldn’t understand why, since he was trusted to be in an open prison, arrangements couldn’t have been made for him to be there in case the worst happened. At that point, I think he was close to being suicidal and had things gone badly, I fear he wouldn’t have wanted to go on living. Fortunately, both mother and child survived, but the stress for everyone involved must have been horrendous.

Impact on families
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the negative impacts of imprisonment on mental health, but that isn’t only limited to the prisoner. Families can come under immense pressures too.

Whenever I read about someone being sentenced to imprisonment, for whatever crime, I now tend to think about the impact on those left behind on the outside. Behind most prison sentences, there will be a lasting legacy of devastation and misery for an innocent family. 

I’m far from being an idealist and I’ve met many people in prison who I think do deserve to be in there, sometimes for truly horrendous offences. However, I think that it should be remembered that when the judge passes sentence on the person in the dock, he or she is also imposing a second, unspoken sentence on their family and that fact is often forgotten.

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