Through St Giles Trust, I’ve spoken to a number of men who have served time and turned their lives around. Many say that the hardest part of their sentence was being separated from their families. Worries around how their loved ones on the outside were coping were constantly on their minds. The monotony and boredom of doing time by its very nature gives people ample thought time. “Some of the hardest men cry like babies,” said one former prisoner. “Then no-one shows them any sympathy as you don’t show emotions in prison.”
Families left on the outside often end up serving a sentence too when Dad goes inside. Alongside stigma and prejudice they often face, the emotional pain cannot under-estimated. Dad is many things to the whole family – the best friend, the role model, the provider, the taxi service, the wise one and - indeed - sometimes the not so-wise-one. Taking him away can leave a family in shatters.
Of course, no-one is saying that people who have committed crimes should not pay their debt to society. The paradox is that we potentially create more future victims of crime if we leave these families unsupported. Boys in particular can be drastically affected by parental imprisonment and are at an increased risk of following their footsteps into the criminal justice system.
However, St Giles Trust’s work with these heavily disadvantaged families gives us hope that this is not necessarily a future foretold for these children. By offering intensive, flexible support – in effect becoming like an added family member – St Giles Trust is able to help families during this rocky period and enable them to become independent and take control of their lives.
The situation today is made worse by the fact that cutbacks have meant some of society’s traditional safety nets have now been taken away from families in poverty. This makes the case for support even more acute. Accessing the benefits and support services which are available is often incredibly tricky. But helping vulnerable families get in touch with them means their situation is stabilised. This means they can concentrate on things like Mum getting a job and the children thriving at school rather than where the next meal is coming from.
The good news is that with patient, persistent and non-judgemental support families with a loved one inside can lead normal, successful lives. Having busy lives revolving around work, going to school, after school clubs, seeing friends and - of course - visiting and writing to Dad makes the time go quickly. And before they know it, families are looking forward to the day they can hug Dad at home again.
Helping a family survive the trauma of a loved one being in prison helps all of us in society. Please show your support for Futures Without Bars.
Jenny Agutter OBE
St Giles Trust Patron