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Breaking the Ties That Bind
Prisoners families are a marginalised group, often ignored by the powers-that-be and society at large. Here, BARBARA FLOOD hears them argue for a more compassionate approach.
Barbara Flood, 29 Sep 1999
Most prisoners leave behind someone who loves them. Usually it s a mother, wife or girlfriend who s left to cope on the outside, but there s also husbands, brothers, sisters, and children. Hundreds of people must learn to deal with the loss of a loved one because of imprisonment. They are not an important lobby group, having little power or money, and so can do little to address their concerns.
Elaine s sister and three brothers have been in and out of jail for various drug-related offences. All her siblings were sent to a detention centre in their youth for mitching school. The centre is now being investigated by the gardam because of allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
It s only now looking back on it, that they say it did fuck their heads up, says Elaine, They just kind of drifted into petty crime, then started doing heroin, and the crimes got worse and worse. They did try to get off the drugs a couple of times, but there s only nine places in the detox unit at any one time in Mountjoy, and there s hundreds of addicts in there.
You ask any family of a heroin addict, says Sean, whose brother is serving seven years in Wheatfield, and they ll tell you the same thing. There s just not enough detox places. My brother wouldn t be inside if he had been treated earlier. But the government is absolutely useless. They re not putting the money into it.
Apart from their frustration at the government s lack of response to heroin addiction, many families are critical of the way they are dealt with on prison visits.
I often come off the visit in tears, says Elaine, Especially when I d visit my sister, and I couldn t even give her a hug. It s very hard, especially when it s children going up to visit. They will try, even though they know they re not allowed, to take the child to give it a hug, and they ll end up being taken off the visit.
Others can t bear to see someone they love behind bars. Deirdre s father is serving 11 years for a series of burglaries he did when he was unemployed, and while she visits her dad every week, her brother and sister find it too difficult:
They get too upset, especially when they have to leave. They don t like leaving him like that, she says.
Deirdre feels there is little financial or emotional support for families who have to keep a house going and make the visits every week. They are often worried about the effect imprisonment will have on their loved one, and feel angry at the fact that they are being punished too.
I don t think people realise that prisoners have families and girlfriends out here, and that they need support. I don t think the government is too bothered either.
Ian O Donnell of the Irish Penal Reform Trust feels that it s vital for prisoners to maintain strong links with their family and friends.
When prisoners are taken out of society and held in this artificial environment stripped of responsibility, and continuing their drug use it s very important to make sure that any links they may have, which give them support and a sense of rootedness, are preserved and maintained, and if at all possible, improved. When a man s inside, for example, he could be offered a parenting skills course, and have as many visits as possible, and use that time to build his relationships. The harm that is caused by being in prison is then minimised, and they can adapt better on release.
Visiting conditions in all the closed prisons are intolerable, O Donnell continues. I visited all the prisons in the country over the past year, and it is shocking to see how prisoners are separated from their families by a large counter, and not allowed physical contact. They say it s to keep drugs out of prisons, but there are all kinds of issues relating to reducing the demand for drugs which would be more effective.
With John O Donoghue having begun a process of building an extra 2,000 prison places in December 96, there is going to be a lot more people affected by imprisonment in the future. Research shows that family and community bonds can play an important part in whether or not someone reoffends, but as O Donnell points out, At the moment we don t do very much to make sure these fairly fragile bonds aren t broken. n