Gemma: The difficulties of a relationship with a prisoner

PET spoke to a 25 year old woman from Northampton who is on the verge of breaking up with her partner of five years after communication between them broke down during his prison sentence. 

Retail manager, Gemma*, has spent the past two years waiting for and supporting her boyfriend during his sentence and she says the biggest challenge has been staying in contact – an issue that could be solved by technology.

Gemma says: “It has become insurmountable. We’ve come up against so many things over the past few years and he’s been moved to numerous prisons, further away each time. Some prisons were really terrible. I remember going to one prison for a visit and suddenly being told he’s been moved, so I was stopped from seeing him and no one could give me any information about where he’d gone.”

This issue of booking visits for family and friends, which could easily be solved through an online booking system, is one of many raised by PET and PRT’s report.

“I haven’t seen him for 4 months this time because he’s been moved so far away”

Gemma says: “We’ve always been very close, we’ve known each other for 10 years but it’s taken it toll. He doesn’t have anyone else, his family are all abroad and he won’t talk to anyone but me so I do everything for him. I haven’t seen him for 4 months this time because he’s been moved so far away, I can’t travel there it is too far and I work full time. No one at work knows about my relationship.

“It is hard, I have to support our house and pets by myself and I can’t afford to keep sending him money to phone me but if we can’t talk he doesn’t understand what’s happening in my world.

“People can’t afford the calling rates in prison, especially if you have children. Some prisons have booking systems too and they can only call at a certain time for 10 minutes, so often the time might be inconvenient and they might have to call mobiles and then that’s even more expensive. Video calling would be much better, but it would need to be cost-effective."

“He’s not very literate and when he’s tried to sign up to do courses they move him.”

“One prison my boyfriend was in previously had a similar system to email which was much cheaper and sent instant messages via a secure service. But writing is a big issue and I can’t get him to write letters. He’s not very literate and when he’s tried to sign up to do education courses they move him so it has been impossible for him to settle down and do something. Everything is on the internet now and I think that interactive e-learning would have worked really well for him but he’s now coming out in 6 months, so it’s probably too late.”

“If people have a family and someone to come home to, that helps them to lead a different life”

In addition to her day job, Gemma volunteers as a mentor to ex-prisoners, helping them to get into education, vocational training or employment and she also helps to run Prison Chat UK, a website to support prisoners’ families. Gemma has the motivation, knowledge and skills to help her partner to turn away from a life of crime but due to the breakdown in communication during his sentence she doesn’t know if they will still be together when he is released.

She adds: “I know from my volunteering work as well as personal experience that maintaining family ties is so important for people in prison. If people have a family and someone to come home to, that helps them to lead a different life. A lot of people are released with nowhere to go, no support, no reason to stay on the straight and narrow. If they end up homeless what other options do they have but to turn to crime to survive?”

Notes

*Gemma is not her real name, she asks to be anonymous.

Gemma discussed her experiences along with other partners and families of prisoners as part of Prisoners' Education Trust and Prison Reform Trust’s report Through the Gateway: How Computers Can Transform Rehabilitation which examines the current use of information and communication technology (ICT) in prisons and its potential as a tool for rehabilitation.