By a family member

The news of her son's arrest overseas led this family member to isolate herself from friends and family for fear of judgement. She has shared her experience of attending her first family support group, which showed her she was not alone.

No one could ever really imagine that moment when they receive news about a family member being arrested. It only happens to other people, surely. Well, it happened! My son had been arrested and was held in a prison in the US. The shock and sheer desperation felt like nothing I had ever known. It isn’t the news you want to shout out on social media as you can never be too sure how it will be received.

My first call was to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office. I was assigned a very kind case officer who supported and advised. After an initial few phone calls, they recommended I get in touch with Prisoners Abroad. I spoke to a lady who sent me some paperwork. I signed up and was sent information – all of which was useful – on what they can do for the prisoners abroad, but also how they support the families back home left feeling totally helpless wondering what they can do to help their loved ones thousands of miles away.

I hadn’t appreciated that there was support out there for me, too.

I then received an invite to a support group for families of overseas prisoners. I had been quite guarded about who I told about my son’s imprisonment, as often it was met with silence or a shocked face. The support from those around me hadn’t been that great, so I felt less inclined to share our journey with others. But the invite made me curious; I felt a real pull to attend the support group, yet very apprehensive about going. I told myself I didn’t have anything to lose, but maybe something to gain.

I felt a real need to meet with others going through such a difficult time. My situation didn’t feel like something I could bring up when out with friends for a coffee. Even those who tried to understand could never really do so, and the friends I told often stared back blankly as they didn’t always know what to say. If they did comment, I didn’t honestly know what they were really thinking, so I found myself withdrawing from talking to even close family members and friends.

At times, I felt judged and unsupported even when I think people meant well. It felt like it became a taboo subject and often people would say nothing or simply not ask how my son was doing. I started to question why anyone would feel empathy or understanding in this situation. 

These feelings of isolation made me decide to go to the support group. I went with an open mind. I was extremely anxious about what I was about to walk in to and who I might see. It took over two hours on the train to get to London. I finally found the Prisoners Abroad office and walked straight into a room full of very ordinary looking people, very much like myself .

I was instantly greeted by warmth. The relief of this brought me to tears as the anticipation and worry of coming to this group had been so huge for me. I was offered tissues and a listening ear, and a welcoming coffee was handed to me. I instantly felt I was in safe hands.

The family support group volunteer did an introductory talk on all they have to offer prisoners and their families, which gave me time to gather my thoughts and settle. It was informative and informal. The warmth from other family members was quite often unspoken, but it was evident in the kind and comforting glances which said: “we are here, just like you.” We all shared a common ground and there was no judging. We sat around a table in an informal manner, which I liked as I could hide behind my table, and I found the meeting’s structure very helpful.

We all introduced ourselves, which for me was very moving and emotional. A woman said her name and shared that her son was in prison, and our eyes met across the table with an understanding glance. Hearing another person say that felt like a huge weight off my shoulders. I wasn’t alone; simply knowing and seeing others and all together under one roof broke barriers even beyond the group. Being able to speak freely and listen to other people’s concerns and experiences helped me to learn so much. There were lots of things I hadn’t even thought of that I realised could help me and my son.

Lots of questions were raised in the meetings. Each member of staff brought more insight into what Prisoners Abroad can do, from sending freepost envelopes out to different facilities all over the world, to providing books and Christmas cards, to helping with resettlement on release. I now know that they are only a phone call away, and next time there is an invite to a support group, I know I won’t hesitate to attend as I’ll never forget that feeling of realising how much I needed to meet others in similar situations.

I felt so much lighter on the train journey home, like a weight had been lifted from me. I knew if I needed support, it was there. I am so grateful to Prisoners Abroad.

Creating a safe, non-judgemental space for shared experiences.

Prisoners Abroad helps family members affected by a loved one’s imprisonment by providing one to one support as well as hosting family support groups around the country and arranging overseas visits.

Can you help to support our life-saving work by donating today?