KINGSTON — When her son went to prison 10 years ago, Mary was unprepared for the isolation that she would also endure as people distanced themselves from the family.
“There’s a real stigma. Friends stop calling you. But it’s not just friends. Family members. Church members. Your neighbour sees you out on the driveway and runs the other way,” said Mary, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
With few places to turn, Mary became involved with the Canadian Families and Corrections Network (CFCN), a national charity that offers support and services to prisoners and their families. The organization celebrated its 25th anniversary this month, marking the occasion with a slate of activities over Family Day weekend in Kingston. The city is home to several federal prisons, which makes it a destination for visiting family members from across the province and beyond.
The anniversary was a chance for members to get together and reflect upon, and commiserate over, the isolation and stigma of having a family member in prison.
Despite a quarter-century of working to help families affected by incarceration, prison remains a taboo subject for most people.
“We’re the forgotten society,” Mary said.
Incarceration affects a significant segment of the Canadian population. According to the most recent available data compiled by Statistics Canada, there are roughly 143,500 people under supervision — provincial territorial and federal — on any given day. (About 40,000 are in custody, the rest under community supervision.)
Research conducted by the CFCN suggests that more than 350,000 Canadian children have their father under correctional supervision.
“We like to believe, in our lives, that there’s an ‘us and them’ somehow. That our lives are somehow tidy,” said Scott Harris, deputy commissioner for Correctional Service Canada’s Ontario Region. “And the reality is, I’m constantly reminded, that any one of us — but for the grace of God — could be inside an institution. All of us have family members who’ve had to come to terms with what they’ve done, or how they’ve hurt people. All of us have either been victims, or know people who have been victims.”
Harris said it’s important not to forget about the human lives that are impacted by crime. Not just the victims, but also the families of offenders.
“As a society, we need a criminal justice system. We need the protections it offers, we need the controls it puts in place. We need those things. But what we can never sacrifice is the reminder that the crime, and experience with the criminal justice system is inevitably about real people whose lives are touched.”
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Mary said most people would rather look away than confront their prejudices about the families of convicted criminals. “It’s not like I don’t think [my son] should be in prison. I’m the first person to say he should be in prison. He did a bad thing. He is going to do his time. But I didn’t commit any crimes,” she said.
“And still people — even friends — won’t even pick up the phone. They think I’m guilty. It’s guilt by association,” she said. “I may not like him anymore, I may not trust him anymore, but I love him. He’s my son. What am I going to do?”
Without the support of friends and family, Mary has relied on the CFCN for help as she manages the emotional burden of having her son in prison.
Diane Schoemperlen can sympathize with Mary’s feelings. She’s the award-winning author of This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications. The 2016 book details Schoemperlen’s relationship with a man she calls “Shane,” who was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder when they met.
“I lost a lot of friends over this relationship,” Schoemperlen said while at the CFCN event. And it is true, this is how you can find out who your real friends are. But it was very painful at the time.”
Schoemperlen was compelled to write the book, she says, to educate Canadians about the prison system, and open their eyes to the effects it can have on families and relationships.
“I knew nothing about prison. So there was a huge learning experience for me. I had a lot of misconceptions about the Canadian prison system. And what I thought I knew about it was based mostly — like most people — on American movies and TV.”
Incarceration and children
Courtney, 19, was nine years old when her father went to prison. Though she did not fully comprehend what it meant to have a family member in prison, she knew it immediately made her different than her classmates.
“The majority of my friends had both parents as a regular part of their lives,” said Courtney, who, like Mary, did not want to give her full name. “The hardest part was not having him there. I wanted to spend time with my dad, like just playing with him, like a kid. And I didn’t get to do that as often as I would like.”
Finding other people who knew what it was like to have a family member in prison was crucial for Courtney. “I would go to these support group things, we would go bowling or to the movies or whatever, and there would be other people my age who were going through similar things, who understood the pain I was going through.”
With help from her support group, Courtney and her father have maintained a relationship for years, which she said is healthy. He is out of prison, and the two of them now work together in a family business.
Beyond social isolation, the relatives of incarcerated people have another big complaint in common. Anne Cattral, whose son was given parole in January after four years in federal institutions, mentioned ion scanners, and knowing groans are heard from some of the roughly 50 people who’ve gathered in the multi-purpose room of St. Andrew’s By-the-Lake United Church.
Ion scanners are machines used for drug screening at federal prisons, able to detect trace amounts of drug residue on a visitor’s clothing and accessories. If a positive “hit” is detected, that visitor may be interviewed to determine whether or not they will be allowed in the facility.
Critics of ion scanners say the machines produce too many false positives. Visitors can test positive for drugs despite claiming to be drug-free.
“I tested positive for pretty much everything that was on their sheet. Opiates, heroin, fentanyl. Whatever,” Cattral said.
It was an experience with the ion scanner, Cattral said, that inspired her to begin advocating for families affected by incarceration.
“One day I had taken my grandson to visit his father, and of course I tested positive. And they put us in the closed visit, which is behind glass. And you have to lean down to shout through the grill just to hear each other,” said Cattral, holding back tears. “When my son came down, and he saw us in this room, his face just … I could see the hopelessness, helplessness, fear.”
“As we were leaving, my grandson said, ‘Daddy, I won’t be able to give you a hug.’ Well that was that. My attitude changed.”
Cattral and the Ottawa-based M.O.M.S. (Mothers Offering Mutual Support) have since filed a petition to Parliament calling on the public safety minister to review the use of ion scanners, and explore alternative drug screening tools.
“It was around that instant that I became more of an advocate for my son, and his son, and anybody else who falls into the basket.”
Meanwhile, CSC research from 2009 showed that just 46 per cent of incarcerated men received visits.
Cattral believes strong family bonds will help inmates adjust when they’re eventually released. Research conducted by Correctional Services of Canada found lower recidivism rates among inmates who received family visits while in custody.
“The prisoners who have strong family ties, and have support when they come out, are the lucky ones,” Cattral said. “Because they’re the ones that are not going to be caught in the revolving door, and shot right back in.”
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