Excepts from The Outsiders Booklet 3 published by Action for Prisoners’ Families

Loss and separation – how will I feel?

The separation from a partner or partent who has been imprisoned has bee compared to the grief you feel when someone close to you dies. This may not be a very good comparison – because when someone dies the grief may be great and may go on,. But eventually some sense of healing, or at least acceptance of the pain will come. You know the person cannot come back – it is final.

But if you are separated by imprisonment from a partner or parent, the pain lives on. There are constant reminders – the visits, phonecalls, the letters sent or received. You may have to save money to buy things for the prisoner. And then there is time, endless time, the counting of days until release. There are dissapointments when you don’t get a letter you expected, a visit is cancelled, s/he is refused parole. There are constant reminders of the absence in your life.

Losing someone who matters to you is one of the most disturbing experiences in life. Death, divorce and the separation of imprisoment can all lead to powerful feelings of grief. Grief is a complicated emotion. It can seem simple because it can be so overwhelming. But it isn’t really simple at all. Every experience of pain is so personal, yet seems so different. Even the amount of pain and how long it lasts can vary greatly; depending on how close you were to the absent person and what caused the separation.

It may help you to come to terms with this pain if you think about the stages of grief, as many people report experiencing it. It may go like this:

First – A shock, ddisbelief, numbness and awful tiredness that may seem to fill you up and rob you of all energy or the will go do anythig. This tiredness can last a long time.

Second – An acute amd oftem terrible pain of loss.

Third – Anger at your loss, at the person missing, at the event that lead to the loss, even anger at yourself, or a feeling of guilt.

Fourth – A gradual recovery from the intense pain and coping with everyday life again.

Somewhere alonng the path, there may be a great need to feel sorry (or angry) not only for the person imprisoned , but to feel enormous pity for yourself, caught in a situation you didn’t plan or want. This feeling is normal, along with all the other feelings you may have. Added to the grief you are likely to feel tiredness of the body and spirit and it may be hard to face any of the realities of likfe. Given time this will pass but not neccesarily easily.

The pain of imprisonment has other sides to it. There is the terrible frustration of feeling that your special person belongs at home with you, whereas you can only see him or her for what seems like just a few minutes each week Aisha desperately misses her husband Muhammad: ‘It’s the little things that upset me. Last Tuesday I cooked a chicken though I don’t usually bother as I’m on my own. I took it out of the oven and got quite tearful – I was thinking, he should be here to eat this chicken with me. Silly little things like that’.


Yes. Your relationship may continue in another way, but it will not be the same. For both the imprisoned person and the partner at home, there isn’t ay ‘going back to normal’. Life will never be the same again, although it may eventually be worse or better.

The period of living with separation can pass through various stages, all bringing their own uncertaities and difficulties. These changes include

• Remand in custody

• Bail

• Trial

• Sentence

• Appeal

• Transfer to another prison

• Living through the sentence on the outside

• Living with an indeterminate sentence e.g if your partner is a lifer

• Preparation for release

• Release

• Resettlement

You may find it helps to think of your experience in two ways:

The shared experience

All prisoners families share a similar experience of the criminnal justice system, and in particular of the prison visiting system and you will inevitably be caught up in this yourself, though arrangements may vary from one prison to another. Knowing that so many other families are going through the same experience may help you, and indeed there can be a spirit of comradeship in visiting waiting areas as everyone complains about delays in getting ‘processed’ through the system, transport diffficulties etc. If you are willing to be friendly, you can gain a lot of information and support just by chatting to people. But do remember that gossip can travel fast, so do not say anything too personal until you know you can really trust someone.

Your personal experiences

The way you deal with separation, with the imprisonment of your partner and with coping on your own will depend on:

• The kind of relatioship you have with your partner, and how much responsibility you took on before he or she went to prison.

• What support you can expect to get from family, friends and your local community.

• Your feelings about your partner’s imprisonment and the (alleged) offence.

•  The ages of your children if you have any; whether or not you were pregnant at the time your partner went to prison, the relationship with the children.

• How well you take care of yourself – such as how much time and space you allow yourself for good physical and emotional health and to do the things you enjoy.

All the above points are unique to each person and to each family.


Imprisonment, and the feeling of being labelled a prisoner’s partner, ca compound the sense of isolationn experienced by those left on the outside while their partner is in prison. One woman described it as ‘the silence of my own world, msomehow more hostile than any prison wing’

Here are some other families experiences:

“It is so difficult to explain to anyone out here what loving someone who is so far away from you can be like. It’s not all roses and smiles. The loneliness gets to us all, and whatever you want to say cannot be said there and then. Everything goes on hold – most of your life”.

“I feel awkward going out alone. We always used to go places together”.

“The loneliness was awful at the beginning, but you come to realise you just have to get on with it”.

“I didn’t plan to be on my own, and time doesn’t make it easier. It just gets harder – I can see no end to it”.

“I’m so lonely – even with five children – especially at night when they’re in bed. Its hard not being able to share problems’. ”

“There’s nobody else in my situation I can talk to, so I tend to have a rosy view of everybody elses life, thinking their life’s great”.

“The thing I find most difficult is that it will be years before we are together”.

Isolation can mean something different to everyone. The obvious effect is loneliness, but it can also lead to loss of confidence, anxiety and depression. Some of its effects like depression or loss of confidence ca stay with you for a long time.


A recent survey asked prisoner’s families what sor of help they would find most useful. The identified four kinds of help:

Practical help – with money, transport, childcare and other needs.

Better visiting arrangements – including longer time, more privacy and improved facilities.

Meeting people in a similar situation, to share experiences, support one another and have access to more information.

Someone to talk to and help with relationship issues, depression, children and emotinal issues.


Another important aspect of change when one partner in a relationship is imprisoned is the loss of imtimacy. This is accompanied by limited communication and loss of chances to share commoplace events with each other. It may seem that only ther prisoner has lost his or her freedom, but the partner left at home has also suffered a great loss. Unlike prisons in some other countries, for example Canada, there are no conjugal visits (where you have private time for intimacy with your partner) allowed in British prisons.


Depression is one of the most common illnesses, and it is one from which a prisoner’s partner is very likely to suffer at some point.

How depression can affect your moods

You may feel:

Low, blue or sad – ‘Life’s so dull.’

Despair – ‘There’s no hope!’

Helpless – ‘There’s nothing I can do.’

Guilty – ‘I blame myself.’

Ashamed – ‘I never thought I’d feel this low.’

Empty – ‘I don’t have any feelings nowadays.’

Isolated – ‘No one cares.’

Worthless – ‘I’ve made such a mess of my life.’

Unloved/unwanted – ‘I’ve got nobody to live for.’

Irritable – ‘I fly off the handle over the smallest thing!’

No interest in sex – ‘I’ve gone completely cold.’

How depression may affect your body

You may have:

Indigestion and wind

Constipation or diarrhoea

Increased/decreased appetite


Sleep problems

Painful joints

Aching muscles




Dry, itchy skin.

When these feelings last a long time or start to disrupt your life, then you may need help.


Give yourself time, talking to someone may reduce the burdern of loneliness

Let yourself cry, To cry on someones shoulder can releive the isolation of ever showing anyone how bad you are feeling.

Take regular exercise, Studies have shown that regular exercise does help reduce feelings of depression, start slowly if you have not been used to exercise, try walking or swimming.

Don’t punish yourself, you need to recognise that there is a good reason for feeling the way you do and you need to be good to yourself.

Always allow yourself to be angry, allowing yourself to feel anger if depressed ca be very strengthening. Once we start to feel anger we need to decide what to do about it. It can give us the energy to allow us to make demands on other people, or start doing things for yourself.

Learn to be realistic, start by asking yourself how you would see things and the tupe of things you would do, if you were not feeling as upset as you are now.

Taking pills, Though we can take pills to supppress paiful feelings for a time, usually we have to face those feelings so that we can cope better with the future.

Tips to stay emotionally healthy:

Build close friendships with people you find supportive

Make time for your own needs

Learn to express your feelings

Learn to relax

Take regular exercise and adopt a healthy lifestyle.


For may people the loss and pain caused by the separation of imprisonment creates a limbo, an emptiness. Coming to terms with this may mean making new decisions about your relationship. It may mean struggling with feelings about the separation, and with the abnormal situation of very little contact, perhaps within a difficult environmet. You may not feel able to express your feelings. This can cause problems later, when ager and frustration lead to withdrawal and failure to communicate.

Finding the right person to listen to your feelings or findig the right person to help your children is important for youyr emotional well being. Finding ways to communicate enough, at the right times and in the right ways, is important if you want your relationship with your imprisoned partner to survive.


Maintaining a relationship will include keeping your partner in prison up to date with the gradual changes at home. If s/he has been away for a while, the children will have grown and you their partner will also have changed. S/he may now have a different role in the family, and you will have new friends and a new social role.