Freya's story told by Emma, Senior Caseworker 

Imagine finding out that one of the people you love most in the world has been imprisoned in a country thousands of miles away, a country where prisoners live each day in challenging conditions, a country where if you are in prison your right to clean water, food, and medicine is ignored. Freya* answered the phone to this life-changing news four years ago, when she found out her brother had been imprisoned in a country in Asia**.

As a caseworker at Prisoners Abroad I have taken hundreds of phone calls from prisoners’ family members whose lives have been permanently and devastatingly changed after learning that their loved one has been detained in Asia, where prison conditions are notoriously challenging. It is not something anyone can be prepared for, but for Freya the news came at a particularly bad time as she was expecting her first child. Her brother’s arrest had a severe impact on Freya:

I got the call from the embassy while I was at work. Finding out that my brother had been imprisoned was without a doubt the worst moment of my life. I took on the whole burden of his arrest and tried to keep my worries to myself to protect my family.

His imprisonment took a huge toll on me and my baby, who was born prematurely because I was under so much stress from what was going on.

When Freya found out about the dangerously poor quality of food her brother was receiving she felt solely responsible for finding a solution; when her brother was due to go on trial Freya was left to organise and communicate with lawyers who didn’t speak English; and when her brother’s eyesight started to deteriorate in prison to the point where he could barely read, Freya again felt like she was the only one in a position to help.

I am pleased to be able to tell you that Prisoners Abroad could be there to ease some of the strain. We send Survival Grants to people in desperate need in regions where basic human rights are ignored. These grants meant that Freya’s brother could buy the food and clean water he needed to supplement his meagre prison diet and stay alive.

We work closely with the British Embassies throughout Asia to get Survival Grants sent quickly to the prisoners whose health depends on them. We heard that Freya’s brother was struggling even more so with prison life because of his rapidly deteriorating eyesight. This meant that our next priority was to send a Medical Grant to pay for the £140 prescription for glasses that would enable him to see clearly again. He was then able to read letters from his family, the newsletters we had sent, and birthday and Christmas cards from staff and the Prisoners Abroad community. Receiving these things can be crucial for reducing isolation and maintaining a connection with life outside prison.

For family members like Freya, it can be an enormous comfort to know there is an organisation that cares about their loved one’s welfare and is willing to help: “The level of support that Prisoners Abroad gives is so rare.” Thankfully our grants were able to improve prison life considerably for Freya’s brother, meaning that some of the burden Freya had taken on lifted. However, by this point the stresses Freya was under had already begun to take a toll.

Freya had managed to shield her family from as much of the panic and stress of her brother’s imprisonment as possible, but this came at a significant cost. She was feeling completely overwhelmed, worrying about the health of her newborn whilst feeling accountable for her brother’s physical and mental wellbeing in prison in a different continent. Our freephone helpline gave Freya a place to turn for non-judgmental one-to-one support when these pressures became too much. Freya said:

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.

More and more, when I answered the phone to Freya I could hear she sounded less overwhelmed, particularly at the end of a call, and it was wonderful to hear that she had the support she needed to carry on. My colleagues and I knew the specific challenges facing her brother and so could answer any questions Freya had. Last year we received 4,574 calls to our helpline, offering critical practical advice and emotional support when it is most needed.

Other family members find solace in our Family Support Groups which offer a safe, non-judgmental space to talk about the challenges of overseas imprisonment with others who are in a similar situation. These sessions have moved online during the pandemic which has allowed us to run meetings that focus on specific countries and regions. These meetings are relied upon now more than ever, a family member from a recent Online Family Support group:

For me it’s such an encouraging experience to hear what other people are going through with relatives detained in other countries. 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.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

**We have not named the country to protect the identity of Freya's brother

Help Reduce the Isolation of Family Members

Every day we see the impact that donations have on family members who are struggling to cope. Please do consider making a donation to support people in Freya’s position.