Sunday, November 30, 2014

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Prisons and a Death in the Family

Alex Cavendish with a piece on bereavement and prisons from his blog, Prison UK: An Insider's View on 7 November 2014. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation.

When you are in prison, one of the most difficult things to have to cope with is the death of a close family member or loved one. By its very nature, bereavement is a time when families usually come together for mutual support and comfort, as well as to share their memories of the person who has just died. It is an important opportunity to pay your respects and this, in turn, can help to ease the process of grieving. When you are inside a prison this often just isn’t possible and it can be incredibly painful, leaving a long-lasting legacy of deep hurt.

Death of a parent can be traumatic
Many prisoners find that they have been absent throughout a family member’s final illness or, if the death has occurred suddenly, there hasn’t been any chance to say goodbye. Perhaps because of the criminal conviction there has been a rift in the family, with many things being left unsaid, very often an apology for all the hurt and distress that has been caused. This can be a source of lasting guilt. Or maybe because of ill-health the person wasn’t able to visit the prisoner for months or even years prior to their death.

Having elderly parents, or family members who have serious life-threatening or limiting illnesses, the prospect of a death when you are in custody can be a constant reminder of why the loss of liberty that comes with imprisonment is – and should be – the punishment handed down by the court. Not being able to hold the hand of someone you have loved, and who has loved you, often unconditionally, as they pass away can leave a very significant sense of loss that can take a very long time to come to terms with.

When I was a prisoner, I was always conscious of the risk that one or both of my own elderly parents might die while I was still incarcerated. Although prison chaplains and some wing staff can provide words of comfort in these difficult circumstances, it’s at times like those that you do feel most isolated and alone in the nick, despite – or perhaps because of – having so many strangers around you.

Behind bars: very much alone
As an Insider (peer mentor) in prisons, I have spent a fair amount of time trying to support and console fellow cons who have experienced a bereavement. Usually, it tended to be a parent or grandparent who had died, but occasionally it was a partner or even a young child. For many men, being banged up in a shared cell (‘two’d up’), they find it difficult even to start the grieving process.

Big ‘hard’ men on prison wings don’t often cry, even if they are full of grief and pain. While they might be able to shed tears after dark in their own single cell, having another bloke sleeping a couple of feet away can severely limit the opportunities to have a good cry. It all seems like weakness.

I used to arrange for them to come round to my pad (cell) at a time when my pad-mate was doing something else and shed a few tears. As I’ve written before on this blog, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve sat on a bunk with my arm around quite a few lads who were in deep distress, including one who had just lost his own infant son to a congenital condition. Just allowing these men the space to cry, to mourn and to speak about their loss in confidence was important.

Part of the practical impact of being imprisoned is all about powerlessness and I’ve seen the terrible grief and frustration that cons can feel when they desperately need to speak to a seriously ill parent, partner or relative, or even one of their own sick children, when there is no chance of getting access to either a wing payphone or to a phone in a staff office or the chaplaincy.

The empty hospital bed
I’m very aware of all of this as I type because my own father died yesterday after a short illness. He had been in declining health for a year or so and, being in his mid-80s, he was unable to fight off the final bout of pneumonia.

My sister and I had been able to spend time beside his hospital bed for the last few days of his life, even when he had been unable to recognise us. It was important to us, both psychologically and emotionally, that we were able to see him in his final days and to assure him of our love. Our relationship hadn’t been without its ups and downs, but he was a good father and had always been there for us.

Although I am still very early in the grieving process, my father’s death has not come as a shock. We were mentally prepared for the worst and the doctors and nurses caring for him at the hospital had been tactfully and sensitively explaining his deteriorating condition. When death finally came, it wasn’t unexpected.

Attending a funeral: on ROTL?
Perhaps inevitably, I have reflected on how I would have reacted had my father’s death occurred while I was still in prison. The final establishment I’d been at until earlier this year is a long distance from my parents’ home, so the chances of getting Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to spend some time with my father during his final illness might not have been great. No doubt I’d have been called up to the office to be notified by a chaplain or a wing officer of my dad’s death and then I’d have been left to grieve alone.

Of course, since I was at a Cat-D (open prison) for the last year of my sentence, I suppose there was a chance that I’d have been given permission to at least attend the funeral without an officer as an escort. Turning up at a sombre family event of this type in handcuffs and chained to a screw – even a decent bloke I got on well with – is not something that I’d have really considered inflicting on my relatives.

Had I still been in a Cat-B or Cat-C, I suppose I’d have made the difficult decision not to have submitted an application to attend at all. I think that it’s a fair bet that current staff shortages in many establishments mean that scarce resources are making such escorted visits on compassionate grounds much more difficult to organise, even if the will is there from governors to make them happen.

A final resting place
However, mercifully, I’d already been released months earlier and so I had the chance to spend some time with my father before he died. Perhaps it wasn’t enough, but I am finding it a great comfort to have been able to say goodbye.

I’m now also realising just how much paperwork, bureaucracy and arrangements are required, even when a person has died of natural causes in a hospital. Being able to take on most of this responsibility myself is proving to be quite therapeutic. Again, had I still been in prison, none of this would have been possible, including just picking up a phone to call relatives or council offices to notify them of the situation.

Anyway, this is the reason that regular readers will have to wait a short while before I have the chance to post again. I will be back soon. Thanks for waiting.