Supporting families of people in prison
Recently I was asked if I would write a short account of New Directions – Supporting Families of People in Prison, to give an account of its origins and its current stage of development.
The origin of ‘New Directions’ goes away back, and arose in response to the unmet needs of people who have loved ones in prison. After a long period of discernment, finally in 2018, the celebration of the Year of the Family gave us the impetus we needed to put flesh on our visions. We were aware that families of people in prison might not figure too highly on the agenda and so we made the first small tentative steps. The seed sown in minds and hearts was ready to move from discernment to action, and thus ‘New Directions’ was born.
With a house rented from the Dublin Diocese and financial support from the Presentation congregation and the Peter McVerry Trust, it all began. The following is a brief account of what happens here in St. Brigid’s in Clondalkin on a daily basis. For a more detailed account I would suggest that you look at our website www.familiesofprisoners.ie
A day in the life of ‘New Directions’
Sunday mornings in St. Brigid’s are busy ones. Like in any house when visitors are coming, preparations must be made. The visitors will begin arriving at about 10.30 am.
The first to arrive will be a man serving a life sentence, who has been granted a day out to meet with his family outside the prison environment. He will have served on average, between ten to twenty years, and will be accompanied by three prison officers.
Next to arrive will be the family members, and numbers will vary according to the size of the family. Not all will come at the same time, and in big families they will come in relays, all happy to celebrate the glimmer of hope that a day out from a life sentence gives.
All are welcomed with the cuppa, a few sandwiches, a slice or two of cake and some sweets – not to mention the bag of crips! The crisps are a ‘must’ especially for the younger members. It is great to hear the laughter of small children (something you never hear in a prison) and to watch fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters hug and embrace each other, maybe for the first time in years; again, something you won’t see much of in a prison setting where the humanising effect of the human touch seems to be forgotten or indeed forbidden. Sometimes a man will come accompanied by three prison officers. He has no family, not even one, and that is the saddest day of all.
Sometimes a friend will be found, but if not, it will be an ex-prison chaplain or a ‘nun friend’ who visited him or her in prison. But a day out is a day out, and we all make the most of it, even the man who has nobody.
The day passes all too quickly, and evening brings another round of hugs and kisses with words of encouragement and promises. As I see them out the gate, family first this time, followed by the prison car, the house feels empty. But it is never empty for too long.
During the week families needing support in coping with having a loved one in prison, will come. It is mostly wives/partners who come – the ones bearing the brunt of imprisonment, with all the emotional and economic stresses that it entails. Mothers and fathers come too wondering where it all went wrong. Those who can’t come will be met on ‘zoom’ or by video. It may not be the ideal way, but it may be the only way if you don’t live in Dublin or where family circumstances mean you are unable to travel.
Many appreciate being able to have the listening ear while children are in bed, or gone to school, or after work. It may be the only ‘me-time’ they will ever get. Sometimes the call is made from a parked car.
There is a sense of family in the house, as we work as a team of four, and develop relationships with the people who come. St. Brigid’s is a peaceful place, and the kettle is always on the boil.
Families of people in prison are often the forgotten ones, but they are never forgotten in St Brigid’s. Some will keep coming for a long time, others for not so long. All some want is that one conversation on the phone where they will tell their story, and look for the usual information about a system they never had to cope with before.
Some are angry and confused, others are anxious and fearful, all are simply heart-broken. Sometimes they are facing into long and protracted court cases, or they may have just come through that experience, while still others have been through it all many times before. Regardless, all come carrying the burden of stigma and shame that society has seen fit to impose on them.
If ‘New Directions’ can offer some small respite and ease it will have made a difference. ‘New Directions’ is still in its infancy and developing slowly as the needs of the families of people in prison (the often forgotten ones) emerge.
Sr. Imelda Wickham
New Directions is an initiative which aims to offer a free, confidential information & support service for families affected by imprisonment. It offers a listening ear and emotional support to help families with the challenges they face.
Some other useful links:
Global Sisters Report Interview – Nov 2nd 2021 with Sarah MacDonald. Sr-imelda-wickham-sharing-insight-reality-prison-life and also The work of prison chaplains is vital but unheralded
Irish Prison System needs ‘urgent‘ overhaul
Sr. Imelda Wickham is relentless in her demand for a restorative rather than a punitive criminal justice system. After 20 years as a prison Chaplain, she articulated her arguments in a book launched last year by Messenger Publications: ‘Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain’.
In Mount St. Anne’s Retreat & Conference Centre on 23rd May, Imelda headed up a public event with experts in the field, in an effort to find new and creative ways of developing a more humane and holistic justice system. lan O’Donnell, Professor of Criminology at UCD, Seán Duggan, Head of Irish prison Chaplaincy Services, and Peter McVerry SJ founder of the Peter McVerry Trust joined Imelda to discuss options with an engaged public audience.
They called for a public debate on how we can improve our outdated and ineffective system and contribute to a change of mindset among politicians and the public at large, to reduce recidivism, support re-engagement with the community and develop a more holistic system.
Imelda urged people to use their voices, expertise and influence to generate this seismic change – and not to allow her book and their work to go the way of the Whitaker Report (1985).
“We need game-changers like Imelda to call out a broken system, but she needs a broad spectrum of support to roll up their sleeves, bring the discussion to the public square, in order to generate seismic change”, tweeted Messenger Publications after the event.Issue-1-Words-Deeds-Spring-into-Summer-2022.pdf