Doing Time on the Outside: The Ambivalent Effects of Secondary Imprisonment on Women

By Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

(Photo Credit)

Although many categories of people can be said to experience the prison system in a secondary capacity, such as friends and children of offenders or prison officers, it is women- mostly wives and girlfriends- who in the majority of cases support prisoners, hence coming in contact with the system. Studies on prisoners and their families demonstrate that regardless of the gender of the inmate and no matter where in the world they are, it is consistently female relatives who visit, send letters, provide goods, and keep in touch, thus making the burden of responsibility gendered. What is more, in her famous study on the experiences of women of male inmates in the US, Megan Comfort establishes that the visitors’ centres and the waiting areas in prisons are distinctly female spaces, noting that nearly 95% of the several hundred daily visitors at the San Quentin State Prison in California are women.

It is worth mentioning that unsatisfactorily little attention has been paid to the collateral effects of imprisonment although clear indications exist showing how, once caught in the web of the criminal justice system, family members of convicts become ‘quasi-institutionalised’ and are placed ‘under the carceral surveillance of the penal regime, and subject to a form of flow control reminiscent of and intrinsically connected to the prison schedule and system’. Despite a dramatic increase in incarceration rates both in the UK and the US over the last few decades, families of prisoners largely remain ‘the forgotten victims’, experiencing a multitude of social, emotional, psychological and financial difficulties which are worth examining separately.

Social Repercussions

There is an incessant tacit assumption that women who care for a prisoner are of questionable morality and society often sees them as somehow defective, if not in character then in self-esteem. Time and again, family members become defined by the wrongdoings of their beloved, wrongdoings which they have not committed but which, nevertheless, render them ineluctably entangled with the phenomenology of ‘the crime’ and ‘the criminal’. To illustrate this, Howarth and Rock refer to the way women feel as if they have been stained with the blood of the perpetrator because of their close relationship with an offender. An explanation of this anomaly could be the existing assumption that family members are at least partially responsible for their relatives’ behaviour as it is their duty to morally guide and prevent their loved ones from ‘slipping’. In addition, there are cases in which families are subject to social stigma and hostility and become targeted by society or the media, thus experiencing ‘outpourings of popular anger, […] verbal and sometimes physical harassment and aggression’.

At the same time, however, there are certain aspects of choosing to stay involved in the life of a prisoner which counteract societal stigma and confirm the exceptionally ambivalent nature of experiencing prison in a secondary capacity. These are all demonstrated in Comfort’s study. Through sharing the stories of women she interviewed, the author emphasises that delinquency has become so widespread in certain communities with high imprisonment rates that having a loved one behind bars is the rule, rather than the exception:

My sister, she was visitin’ her boyfriend, so I was visitin’ my boyfriend . . . and then I have a friend, her boyfriend was in there, and we’d go up there together, you know. I see people there that I know, I see a whole ton!

Finding themselves in the same circumstances, a lot of women discover a sense of community inside the prions’ visiting areas or on the buses going there, thus making unexpected new friends: ‘They buy each other coffee, sit together, watch over their belongings, and just spend time chatting’, says Comfort. Moreover, supporting and providing for a family on their own, while at the same time standing by their men, can frequently create the notion of the moral righteousness of women and bolster their self-image as a loving and loyal mate.

 Financial Repercussions

Families of prisoners tend to be among the poorest in almost every society with the causes for this often stemming from their underprivileged ethnic minority backgrounds and lack of good education. Therefore, the imprisonment of a family member frequently serves to further entrench such women’s disadvantage since staying in touch with a prisoner is a major time- and resource-consuming process in which they are likely to have to regularly pay for transportation to the prison facility and back, for appropriate attire for the visits, packages, letters and phone calls which can lead to them depleting their scarce resources, often ignoring their needs, their children, their social life and work for the sake of their loved ones. Furthermore, women are frequently faced with severe reduction in social benefits, one less salary to rely on, legal costs and various other bigger or smaller financial demands from the prisoner which can ‘escalate a dire financial situation to the point where homelessness and deprivation result’.

Grinstead, Faigeles, Bancroft and Barry interviewed 151 women who reported spending $292 per month on average for keeping in touch with their husbands. Comfort further details the long list of special requirements San Quentin has with regards to the weight, wrapping, authorisation labels and allowed content of the packages sent, which are hard to comply with, especially for those living on a low budget. Likewise, the dress code which proscribes many ordinary garments such as jeans, and forbids certain styles, fabrics, and colours makes adherence to it rather challenging as many women cannot afford to spend money on changing their or their children’s wardrobe. Light and Campbell say that information on what the prisoner is allowed to receive or the kind of clothes they are supposed to wear on a visit is usually learnt after a few failed attempts as prison rules are oftentimes confusing and poorly worded. Other major costs are food and bus fares. Food needs to be bought for the long bus drives and is not allowed in many prisons’ visitor centres meaning that people are usually left with the only option of purchasing overpriced snacks from vending machines inside. Codd points out that there are some prison-visiting schemes giving travel allowances to families- however, they are not available in all countries or in all states in the US. As a result, most of the time privately-owned bus companies will transport families to the prison facilities charging them an average of $40 per ride in the US. Ultimately, it is not hard to see how these situations could result in women being further drained financially if they get sent back due to inappropriate attire despite the long hours of travelling and waiting, if they have to pay for tickets, refreshments and very often for new clothes, or if their packages are returned which leads to them having to repeat the procedure all over again.

On the other hand, prison has paradoxical effects that transpire when the criminal justice system becomes the most powerful social institution available to the poor. Despite all the aforementioned expenses impairing their already not so enviable financial situations, families of prisoners do sometimes derive surprising benefits from the system. These can be in the form of their reliance on the correctional facility to help them fight any drug addictions, mental health problems, even abuse or philandering, of their relatives in prison. Therefore, notwithstanding the many arguments that prison is not only a criminogenic, but a poverty-breeding institution, it is worth observing that sometimes this same institution comes to the rescue of the desperate kin and kith who view it as a “social agency of first resort” having the capacity to provide a roof above their beloved’s head, to regularly feed them and offer them the specialised assistance they so often cannot afford to receive on the outside.

Furthermore, having assumed this new role of the primary care-giver, women of offenders are not only able to experience an improved control over their expenditure, but also a greater sense of empowerment with the criminal justice system granting them a surprising measure of control and leverage in their dealings with men. This is exemplified by the confessions of two females interviewed by Comfort- the first one stating that she had to go to extreme depths to find appropriate footwear for her husband but she nevertheless refused to send him the watch he requested, indicating her plans to withhold certain indulgences as incentives for desired behaviours and the second woman declining participation in overnight visits as a form of punishment of her man. This clearly demonstrates the author’s view that women sometimes use the correctional system to their own advantage by trying to exercise control over their men’s behaviour which in itself supports the argument of the mistiness of the impact imprisonment has on families.

Emotional Repercussions

Comfort perfectly summarises the contradicting emotions that women of offenders experience with regards to the penal system:      

[…] I was continuously struck by the seemingly incongruous behaviours and sentiments of women as they at once denounced and commended the criminal justice system for its intercession in their personal lives, and both rebelled against and joined with the correctional authorities charged with monitoring, restraining, and sanctioning their partners.

The obvious reason for condemning the system is that it is responsible for taking away their men which can be an extremely traumatic and unsettling life event with severe emotional and psychological implications.

The less evident reasons can be found in the way relatives of prisoners are oftentimes treated by the institution which belittles their time and deprecates the importance of their visits. Moran observes that although carceral space seems to be sharply demarcated from the outside world, the prison wall is in fact more porous than one might assume. Thus, visitation may simply become overwhelming due to the reported hostility and negative attitude of officers as well as the myriad phases of long and erratic visitor processing which include humiliating physical searches during which women must ‘expose the lining of their undergarments for inspection’ or are sometimes even subjected to strip-searches. In their work on the topic, Light and Campbell refer to a female relative of a prisoner who shared that ‘going in isn’t easy’ as one feels like they the criminal. This indicates the frustration and powerlessness at the obvious failure of the penal system to differentiate between its primary target and the innocent individual who is simply doing their duty.

On the other hand, prison can also function as a positive turning point in the relationship between a woman and her incarcerated man. Further to being forced to obey and comply with prison rules, men can feel emasculated due to their inability to display sexual prowess or physical strength as well as the lack of financial control. Comfort implies that these are significant factors which, together with the realisation that they are now completely dependent on women, motivate men to focus on improving the emotional connections with their female partners and turn their sentence into ‘a time when apologies can be offered, dialogues resumed, and futures planned’. Women wholeheartedly embrace this drastic change in behaviour and are ready to tolerate the stigma, censorship, invasion of privacy, regulation, spatial confinement, and the regimentation of time, collectively named as secondary prisonisation, in order to compensate for the lack of this mutual understanding and romance in their ‘outside world’ relationships.

Realising that the unexpected progress in their romantic relationships relies heavily on the intervention of the penal system which separates their men from the outside stressors and distractions, a lot of women admit they feel grateful to the careral system for their partners’ transformation. One of Comfort’s interviewees at San Quentin, for instance, shares that:

It’s a lot of good men behind walls! You know, it’s just that it took them to be behind the walls to want to get their self in order.

This newly-found hope, the feeling of closeness, the positive and forward-looking attitude and the confidence that their men have changed for the better are in strong contrast with the array of other emotions prison normally triggers in women, such as jealousy, suspicion, disappointment, distrust and fear.

Thus, prison makes women of incarcerated men feel shunned and stigmatised by society, while at the same time it encourages feelings of pride for standing by their significant others and doing what is expected of them. It imposes a great financial burden on families, while simultaneously creating a sense of liberation and control over their own expenditure. Innocent women may feel degraded by prison authorities who treat them as unworthy, however, this not preventing women from enjoying the improved relationships with their partners and appreciating that, despite its many flaws, the prison system ensures their family members are being fed, sheltered, medicated, and kept away from trouble. All of this demonstrates the complexity of sustaining an intimate relationship with a prisoner and how encountering the correctional institution in a secondary capacity turns women’s lives into a grey world of moral ambiguities and contradictions which creates such a multitude of conflicting feelings that women frequently start to question their own ethical choices and judgment as a result of being caught between cooperating with the system and using it to their own advantage on the one hand, and castigating it on the other.