The unintended price for families of imprisoned loved ones – by Sam Hart

I first met Jay about ten years ago.  I was teaching English at a prison in Kent and he was one of my star pupils.  He had worked hard during his sentence and had some qualifications under his belt. He had stopped using drugs. His life, he told me, was getting back on track.

Prison punishes more than just a prisoner

Then I met Jay’s family. His wife and three children had struggled up to the prison to attend a family day, but they weren’t enjoying it that much. They were tired, and the little ones were fractious. Jay’s wife, Martha, explained that they had got up at five to make the 3 and a half hour train journey, and delays in the security process meant they’d been hanging around outside the prison for an hour. It had been difficult and expensive, and she wasn’t looking forward to the return trip. They had made a similar journey every couple of weeks since Jay had started his sentence.

As the day progressed, I got chatting to Jay’s teenage daughter who seemed a bit fed-up. She told me she had been excluded from school for fighting. She had been defending her younger brothers and sisters who were being bullied because their Dad was in prison. “They need someone to stand up for them,” she explained, “So I did.”

Families pay a harsh price

At home, things were no better. Jay’s crime had riled a few people in the community and a disgruntled neighbour had put a brick through the window. So the family were waiting to be rehoused and meantime, Martha was finding it difficult to sleep: “I listen out for every little noise.” Moreover, they were missing Jay’s income. There was no money for treats, holidays or extras. In fact, sometimes there was no money for food. The car had gone, and their younger son could no longer go to football practice as there was no one to take him (that had been Jay’s job). He had become sullen and withdrawn and was refusing to go to school.

“To be honest we’re struggling,” Martha told me. Although she was pleased that Jay was sorting himself out, she couldn’t help feeling a bit resentful. “He might be flavour of the month here but look at the mess he has left us in. We have done nothing wrong. But no one is helping us. No one has even noticed us.”

A common narrative

Martha’s story isn’t at all unusual. Around 200,000 children have a parent sent to prison each year. These families are plunged into a world of chaos, anxiety and poverty through no fault of their own. Children are 2-3 times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than their peers and are more likely to miss school.  Despite these problems, no routine support is offered to families with a loved one in prison. They are left to navigate a complex and sometimes hostile criminal justice system on their own without even the most basic information such as which prison their family member has gone to or how to organise a visit.

The Criminal Justice System does not set out to harm families. Yet a toxic mix of careless planning and systemic failure means they are often collateral damage in the quest to punish offenders.

This guest blog was written by Sam Hart, co-director of Sussex Prisoners’ Families, which provides support for people with a loved-one in prison. You can follow Sussex Prisoner’s Families on Facebook and on Twitter. This article is part of a series of guest blogs written by Injustice Documentary’s interviewees and other criminal justice reformers and experts. If you are interested in submitting a piece, please contact us.

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