Supporting a Loved One on a Prison Journey

May 20, 2024

Supporting a loved one in prison.

Words can change those who listen and also those who have the courage to express them. My challenge is to use a few words to tell you what it is like to support a loved one in prison.

I thought earth-shattering tragedies and life-changing catastrophes were for other people; events you read about in newspapers or watched in films. I now know that these things can happen to anyone at any moment.

From the moment of my husband’s arrest I entered a parallel universe, my heart was broken beyond words and my brain was barely habitable. This state has become the new norm for me even six years later.

Yet this is not just a tale of woe and misery, although there is plenty of that; it is a story of astonishing truths and the breaking down of beliefs that had sustained me for decades in a life that was previously comfortable, respectable and didn’t ask very much of me.

This tsunami of shock and pain came without a guidebook or set of instructions. And, yes, I may have made mistakes on this journey. But to all those who judge me and tell me what I should have done, or shouldn’t have done, exactly where I have gone wrong, what I don’t understand and how they would have done things differently, I say I did the very best I knew how - always. I have rebuilt myself so many times after every bad day. I have chosen to live on days when dying seemed easier. In an unkind world I have tried to make it kinder. What little strength I now have has been forged in fire. I am custodian of my own integrity. I am a breath, a life in spite of my broken, bedraggled heart. My hope is that people might think before they judge me. Words of harsh judgement reveal more about the speaker than they do about me.

Amongst the many things I have learnt prison visits possibly taught me the most. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the extraordinary knowledge I gained from this unexpected, unwanted and un-asked for experience.

It would appear I am not at all unusual in standing by my husband. There is love by the bucket load in those waiting rooms as we wait to be let into the visiting hall. And there are no barriers; we are all there for the same reason. I look around and see the well-to-do, crack addicts, travellers and everything in between; glorious strangers with tired faces and walking sticks and bright clothes and plastic jewellery and smart outfits or tattered t-shirts and tattoos and hope in their hearts and stories to tell. They are a mixed army of broken-hearted light bearers. And I am suddenly aware that we belong to each other and that all our lives are woven together and we have so much to learn from one another. We can do hard things. And I am in debt to every single one of them for showing me just how vast compassion can be.

To love someone in prison will mean there are places where you are not welcome and society will judge you for it, but be faithful to your own integrity and know that you are fierce, you are brave and above all you are enough.

The two hours of visit pass all too quickly and it is usually a very quiet group of visitors that are herded back through the prison to the waiting room and lockers to collect our belongings and to disappear into the night, with long journeys ahead to rejoin lives where we no longer fully belong, where we are often shunned, judged and misunderstood.

Reverend Desmond Tutu once said, “A person becomes a person through other people” and I have never understood this until now. The people I have encountered on these visits and just generally on this prison journey are among the most noble, loving and courageous I have every met. They have helped me to become a better person and a more real, complete human being.

Over six years have passed since that first arrest and I have learned so much and am ashamed of my former ignorance.

I have learned that good men can do bad things; there is always a back story and offences never happen in a vacuum. Prisons are not full of monsters but deeply damaged people, often victims themselves of trauma, abuse, addiction and mental health.

I have learnt things I didn’t want to know, such as how our crumbling, archaic, understaffed, drug soaked warehouses that we call prison rarely change anyone for the better but instead break families apart, destroy lives and cost society a fortune.

I have also discovered so much about myself. I am stronger than I ever thought and have faced some of my greatest fears. I have learned to problem solve and ask for help. I can keep going even when I am exhausted and unwell. I now know I am not scared of what others think and have found friends and lost friends. I have driven several thousand miles more than I thought I ever could. I judge less and listen more. When we truly hear each other’s stories with empathy our understanding changes.

I have learned that love wins.

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