Senator Lynn Ruane on the women looking after the men she has met during the recording of her new podcast Conversations On the Margins
When I think of prison, I think of men, same with the justice system; there is some masculinity about justice. The constructing of one’s own identity, alongside the expectation of a macho society that you should be able to handle yourself in prison, enforces an embodiment of readiness to stand your ground. For most, even those it feels less natural, this’ maleness’ is embodied.
People seek out love, touch, and care in everyday society, even in the harshest of situations. Yet, prison lacks the care needed for human flourishing, with its sharp edges and institutional colours. The role of caregiver to men in prison is very much taken up by women; mothers, wives, girlfriends and daughters – and those who don’t have access to the female loyalty and care of a loved one recognise its absence. Throughout the recording of the podcast Conversations on the Margins, the role of women in men’s lives was evident. One can’t help but think about the pressure on women to provide care and financial support to their loved ones in prison; in some cases, this care has been provided at a consistently high level for decades.
Families, not just the person in prison, are impacted by the prison sentence, or even the arrest, with many taking place within the home, or raids on the house in the lead-up, depending on the crime. The trauma of a raid is inevitable for some families, with mothers often trying to shield children from the impact of a forceful, aggressive turning over of a family home.
An arrest is just the beginning of the journey for the women of men in the criminal justice system, as they face the removal of financial and emotional support within a household. Women pick up the pieces in many ways and effectively become a one-parent household in the cases of imprisonment of a husband and partner. Men work while in prison, cleaning, cooking and other duties, but they are paid a few cents. Some of the men on the podcast suggested being paid adequately for their work and how that could be sent to families. The lads want to contribute to family life and worry about how their loved ones will make ends meet in their absence; clearly, this is a solution as there is no increase in financial support at a state level for the family of a man imprisoned.
In many cases, caring for someone while in prison increases a family’s costs: clothes, money for the tuck shop, travel weekly to the prison, and the emotional cost of visiting a prison weekly and being divided by a screen or a countertop. They provide high-level care without much in return; even visiting is traumatic. You pile into the visiting rooms with visitors all around you and other families sitting inches from you on the same bench, hearing every word of your private conversation.
Imagine that the only parenting support you could get from the father of your children was a six-minute phone call. A phone call that you are afraid will end before you even explain a situation at home, a parent-teacher meeting or a health-related matter. Women often withhold essential information about the struggle of family life to protect the man on the phone. Women worry about giving a man in prison a vital piece of information out of fear that he has no one to talk it through with once he gets off the phone. Women carry the burden alone while parenting alone. Their decision-making extends beyond their parental duties and expands into figuring out what their loved one can or can’t cope with while locked away in a cell. There is little consideration given to the families left behind, all paying the price.
Mammies of prisoners have shared their fears with me recently about not being alive by the time their sons return home: never getting to know if it all works out at the end, and worst of all, not getting to hold the hand of your loved one as they die. In many cases, men will be missing from their mothers’ funerals and face having to grieve alone with little support received and no opportunities to extend support to their relatives. After two years of Covid, many people in Ireland know how awful it is not to say goodbye.
Throughout the episodes, the role of women in the care and rehabilitation of men in prison is clear, but let’s just for a second reverse the role. Do women in prison receive the same high-level care from their loved ones? The answer is no.