Visiting loved ones in prison can take an enormous emotional, financial, and even physical toll on family and friends who undertake the task. A recent article and photo series published by the Guardian highlight these difficulties in the lives of multiple women living in Philadelphia, who regularly visit their loved ones in a prison on the other side of Pennsylvania.
The Guardian articles tell of women who, to visit their partners and children, must be up at the break of dawn – sometimes between days of night shifts and 3 am starts. The 400 mile round-trip costs them $50 (£39) for a seat in the ‘Bridging the Gap’ van set up by one of the women and her daughter. Many of the visiting population already struggle financially – many are working single mothers – yet they must find the money to visit and support their loved ones. Because of cuts to funding, things as simple as nutritious meals, healthcare and laundry sometimes need outside financial help to obtain in prison.
The financial strain of visiting prisons is clear – but the emotional toll that the Guardian articles highlight is also immense: many families will be missing their partner and father for as much as 40 years, and couples often can have no more intimacy than a monitored conversation in a shared visitors’ room once a week or less. The distance between those in prison and their loved ones on the outside often leaves no spare time for maintaining one’s physical and mental health. In the words of one of the Philadelphia visitors, ‘Your life is on pause however long you decide to stay with [your partner in prison] or until this individual comes home… that’s why some people do walk away’ – leaving prisoners themselves more isolated than ever.
Besides the toll on the individual, this difficult prison system ends up perpetuating the cycle of criminality somewhat. Maintaining family connections with those incarcerated is very difficult, especially for parents and children. Further, many of the women putting their money and time into visits are those ‘working the hardest to rise.’ The Guardian quotes a sociologist on the issue, ‘all their money starts to go into the criminal justice system to support the men in their lives’. It becomes increasingly difficult for these women to get through higher education or training and into more supportive jobs, and takes lots of the money they earn otherwise. It becomes harder for women to move their families out of the neighbourhoods and environments that host risk factors for further criminality: poverty, high drug and alcohol use, and other illegal activities.
This isolation and financial strain of visiting loved ones in prison for women living in the same state as the prison illustrates how great the strain must be for the families of Britons imprisoned abroad. Currently, Prisoners Abroad supports 1570 family and friends of British prisoners overseas – 970 of whom are women. With relatives imprisoned all over the world, family are rarely able to visit, if at all. Prisoners Abroad help organise visits, and are sometimes able to help with funding. Further, we run support groups for family members back in the UK, to help people connect with others facing the same challenges and to combat the isolation they experience.
Each and every person that supports Prisoners Abroad, makes a real difference to the work that we are able to do.