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Kimberley Wilde: Imprisonment is a tough sentence for an inmate’s family too

By Kimberley Wilde, The West Australian, 30 May 2024

When I was a child, one of my family members was in prison during a special wedding.

Wearing the matching floral dresses my mother had made for my sister and me for the occasion, we dressed early so we could take a detour via the prison to show our outfits and try to share some of the experience with our loved ones.

Prison remains woven into my memory of that day.

On an average night there are 6700 adults in prison in WA. Although the stories behind each person’s incarceration are different, an often overlooked but important unifying thread is that every person in prison is part of a family.

This means many families in WA, including mine, have experienced the impacts and harms of incarceration. Yet, as a community, we tend not to consider the damage prison causes to families, including harm to social and emotional well-being, financial stress, and the isolating effects of stigma.

Consider the child who is missing out on closer connection with their family member and carrying shame with them like a weight everywhere because society sends the clear message they should feel shame.

Researchers have estimated that 41,000 children in Australia have a parent in prison.

These children are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, to be bullied, and to have low attendance. They are more likely to have their own interactions with police and the youth justice system and more likely to have complex health problems.

Consider the mother who has found herself a primary carer to her grandchildren at a time when she thought she would be planning her retirement, or maybe she’s mourning the chance to become a grandmother while her child is living in prison.

One woman told me it felt like her son had died when he was sentenced to prison as she felt overwhelming grief while facing the same logistical burdens of packing up his house, rehoming his dog, selling his car, and closing his accounts; but she felt unable to lean on our community for help during her time of grief because of the stigma of incarceration.

In Paul Kelly’s song, How to Make Gravy, Joe longs for the family members who will also be missing his presence while he is in prison at Christmas time.

Maintaining healthy contact with family and community is seen as an important part of rehabilitation and a key to successful reintegration, yet families often face enormous obstacles to visiting prisons.

In a State as vast as WA, significant geographic barriers are common. A person from Newman may be incarcerated in Roebourne, more than six hours from home and family.

There are financial barriers when families travel far to attend visits, costing valuable time and (increasingly expensive) fuel. Delays often reduce the time available for visits, exacerbating a system that’s already daunting for families to navigate and with no consistently available formal support.

Families of people in prison are often stigmatised, labelled as dysfunctional, and looked on with suspicion. Despite this, they usually provide significant support during their loved one’s passage through the criminal legal system and on release, generally without being offered any formal support themselves.

Families must rely on their own resourcefulness to fill gaps in the support service system. They learn to advocate for their loved ones while their complaints go through a standard process that usually results in no change.

While informal groups on social media provide essential support to many, these groups are not resourced and don’t come under any formal governance structures.

Although the criminal legal system relies upon the care and support provided by families, there are significant gaps when it comes to the ways the government and community step in to support these families.

While the role of the family is understandably framed as a critical anchor when it comes to conversations about rehabilitation, reducing recidivism, and supporting reintegration, families are too often asked to play this role with no acknowledgement and no resourcing.

Families are themselves too often punished as they navigate the complex systems and processes that are part of caring for loved ones both during and after incarceration.

Stronger support for families of people in prison is an investment in building a stronger community, reducing the risk of harm, and better-equipping families to support their loved ones while they are incarcerated and after they are released.

It’s likely that most of us know someone who has been affected by incarceration. We can’t forget these families — it’s up to all of us to stand by them.

Kimberley Wilde is WA Advocacy and Campaign Co-ordinator for the Justice Reform Initiative.

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