By Meg Huntly

In 1993, the General Assembly of the UN made 15th May the International Day of Families, to promote awareness of the issues facing families worldwide. Many of these challenges are shared by families across the globe, often as a result of social, economic and demographic processes. Here at Prisoners Abroad, the families we work with face a unique and often hidden challenge: coping with the imprisonment of a loved one overseas, often in harsh and unforgiving conditions.

The stigma surrounding those with a family member in prison can often be unbearable, with many unable to share the news even with members of the wider family, let alone with friends, acquaintances and colleagues for fear of judgement. These feelings may be coupled with ongoing uncertainty as to the wellbeing of their loved one; many of the individuals we work with are imprisoned in regions where basic human rights are overlooked, with limited access to proper food and drinking water, as well as overcrowding and a lack of medical care. Maintaining contact with a family member imprisoned abroad can feel almost impossible, not only because the physical distance may feel overwhelming, but because phone calls and post are often unreliable, meaning there is sometimes no guarantee as to when a family member may next speak with their loved one. The Covid pandemic has heightened this, with many lines of communication into foreign prisons being completely severed and in-person prison visits for consular staff, who would have been able to check in on prisoners’ mental and physical wellbeing, put on hold.

One of the most isolating situations for us is being so far away – the distance makes us feel powerless.

Many family members in this situation may feel invisible and alone, as though no one else is going through the same experiences, but our Family Service here at Prisoners Abroad aims to show that this is not the case. Our support services provide a safe and non-judgemental space for family members and friends to talk with others in similar situations, sharing worries and advice. As one family member writes on attending their first Family Support Group: “I felt it was such a tremendous relief to know that other people were in a similar situation to me. As people spoke about their situations it dawned on me that I am quite normal and all the feelings I have, and my husband have, are very normal under such terrible circumstances.”

Again, Covid-19 has made the provision of these services more difficult, with all groups and meetings having to move online along with the rest of the world. This has, however, made the groups more widely accessible for the family members we support; those who struggled to physically access the meetings are now able to join from home, and a Zoom call may feel much less daunting for those who were previously hesitant or nervous about attending in person. Freya*, whose brother is currently imprisoned abroad, writes as part of our Spring 2022 Appeal: “I'm in lockdown alone so just being in conversation with people is a really positive part of my day. Joining from the ease of home makes me feel really comfortable to talk and share openly.”

On top of this, our caseworkers are available for family members via our freephone helpline to offer advice and support on a one-to-one basis, which helps to ease the unique pressures of having a loved one detained in a foreign country. Freya says: “I don’t know how I could have coped during the first two years without Prisoners Abroad on the other end of the phone, giving me the advice and support I needed to carry on. They helped me so much, especially when I just needed a cry, to offload, or someone to talk to.”

Prisoners Abroad also provide international freepost envelopes to help them stay in touch with friends and family without worrying about the cost of stamps and stationery. The ability to maintain relationships with loved ones outside of prison can be so beneficial for the prisoner and family member or friend alike, reducing the isolation felt by both parties and helping them to look towards a time after imprisonment.

Your support for Prisoners Abroad can help to break down the stigma and isolation felt by many of the family members we work with. The UN says that “Families and family-oriented policies and programmes are vital for the achievement of many of [our] goals”, which include the elimination of poverty, discrimination, abuse and preventable deaths, address environmental destruction, and usher in an era of development for all people. Here at Prisoners Abroad, support for families is integral to what we do. The struggles that individuals face when a family member is imprisoned abroad, while somewhat unique, are no less important, and they deserve a space to talk and be heard with empathy and without judgement. You can find out more about ways to help here.

If you would like more information on the Family Services provided by Prisoners Abroad, please have a look at some of our booklets, which include ‘Holding the Fort’, ‘Managing your Mental Health’ and ‘Keeping in Touch with the Children’. You can also see further information on our Family Support Groups, Family Information Days, and our Online Family Network here.

*Name has been changed to protect identity