The Outsiders

This information has been provided courtesy of Action for Prisoners’ Families. APF works to increase awareness of the issues for children, young people and families, when a parent, partner or other close relative is sent to prison. You can contact APF for further information at or telephone 0208 812 3600


“Someone I knew came and told me my husband had been nicked. It was nearly midnight, but I went down to the police station. They told me what had happened but I couldn’t see him then, so I went home. I was shaking. Later the police came round and questioned me. We were all in total shock. The oldest boy just cried and cried – I don’t think it really hit the younger ones. It was total chaos and it was all sort of hazy. There are still parts of those early days I just can’t remember. This was the start of a nightmare. I just kept thinking it can’t be true”.

This is how it was for one partner at the time of arrest. Although the circumstances can vary, people’s reactions are often very similar. Some partners have been living in dread of this happening, whilst for others it comes as a complete chock. For some it isn’t a new experience.


Many arrests take place in the home. This can be very traumatic, especially if children are present.

“It was a complete shock when the police came early that morning and arrested him. They raided the house and woke up the kids and took them from their beds during the search. When they took their daddy away they went into hysterics. The oldest tried to drag his daddy back”


It is hard to imagine that this experience doesn’t affect children, even very young children and babies who don’t understand what’s happening will be affected, because they pick up the anxieties and emotions of the adults in their lives and subconsciously know that all is not well.

“My little boy is now terrified they’ll come back and take me away too. The children have panic attacks when they see the police – it was very upsetting for them to see their mother being dragged away”

Older children may be just as traumatised, especially when news of the arrest is in the papers and their friends get to hear about it.


For some families, the nature of the offence is a source of shame. This particularly applies to offences of a sexual nature and to other violent crimes though it can go across the board.

It is very difficult for some families to cope if there has been newspaper and television coverage of the case and the sentence. Children especially find this very disturbing, and some women partners feel a great sense of guilt, as if the offence was somehow their fault. If you feel angry, let down, disappointed and ashamed, you need to remember these two things:

These feelings are perfectly normal.

You are not guilty; no matter what the publics perception is of you.


After the shock of the guilty verdict there are some practical things you need to know about. Getting to grips with finances and arranging transport to the prison can be very difficult when you are still trying to cope with the emotional trauma of seeing someone you love being sent away from you – particularly if s/he was on bail rather than being remanded in custody.

You will inevitably feel a sense of panic. Which prison has s/he gone to? When do I get to visit? What do I say to the neighbours?


Your partners solicitor may be able to arrange a brief visit to the cells in court so that you can see your partner before s/he is taken to prison to start a sentence – but this is very rare and most courts do not allow any social visits at all. In most cases his or her legal representatives wail be allowed to visit the cells and they will be able to pass on information to families, eg, about which prison your relative is going to. If you phone the court after 4.30pm and ask to speak to the cells, they should be able to tell you which prison they will be going to. However, when arriving at prison the prisoner will be allowed one postage paid letter to send home to their families, which is how many families find out which prison their relative has been sent to and how they are.


Every prisoner is supposed to be allowed one free reception phone call within 24 hours after they arrive. In practice there is such high demand for the use of prison phones that a prisoner new to the prison may not manage to get to the phone before s/he is locked in his or her cell for the night, so you may not hear from them until the next day at the earliest. Although all prisons are listed in local telephone directories, remember that neither the administrative staff or prison officers are allowed to put incoming calls through to prisoners.


It is up to you how much you tell your family, friends and neighbours about your partner being in prison. If you have children, they are bound to ask questions that you will have to deal with, and it is usually better to tell them the truth, explaining it in a way that they will understand.

Though some parents keep up the pretence that Daddy or big brother is working away for a while it is difficult to maintain this for long, especially when you take the children with you on a visit. Other children at school may tell your child the truth anyway. It will be more hurtful coming from them than it would from you because you will not be there to support your child and explain the situation and help him or her come to terms with it.


If your partner has been claiming income support for the family it is important that you transfer this claim to yourself as soon as possible after your partner has been sent to prison, as you will now be treated as a one income family. Get in touch with your local benefits agency. Call the Prisons Families Helpline free on 0808 808 2003 for general information they can send you a fact sheet, but if you are unsure about what you are entitled to seek advice from your local JobCentre Plus, Benefits Agency or your local CAB (citizens advice bureau).


Bringing up a family without a partner to share the financial burden can put a lot of strain on your finances. For some families this can mean going into debt and this is an enormous source of stress. Partners left at home have to manage and make choices, such as:

How can I avoid spending more than I have?

Should I risk going into debt?

Where can I make savings?

How can I afford to pay for children’s food, clothes and school uniform as well as everything else?

Mothers with partners in prison may be tempted to compensate their children for the loss of their father by spending much more than they can afford on birthdays and christmas. Similarly they often spend more than they can afford on things for their partner in prison. They might also deliberately hide from their partner the extent of their debts for fear of causing anxiety. Here’s what some women said:

“I try to deal with things myself – I don’t like going in and burdening him. I tell him things when the time is right. I don’t talk about money. I do have problems with debt but I try to hide that – like last month, my phone was cut off”

“I manage fine – I’m good with money. I’m better off now to be honest, though he’d be raging if he heard me say that. We always had less when he was here”.


When your partner is away through the enforced separation of imprisonment, the children lose one of their parents and many aspects of day-to-day life will change.

You become a one parent family. Not only do you have to accept the absence of your partner, but you always have to adapt to a while new way of life – taking on new responsibilities, looking after the children on your own, keeping in touch with your partner and visiting the prison. One wife said:

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

Another woman said: “ I’d depended on him so much before he went in. We were good friends and were getting on well. He had just started working and I was expecting a baby. It was awful when he went to prison – suddenly having to make all those big decisions by yourself. I had to do everything on my own. It’s a real struggle, but I feel I just have to get on with it for the sake of the kids – it’s not their fault”


There are inevitable emotional pressures for people whose partners are prisoners. Often they place impossible demands on themselves, which increase their burden. Some believe they always have to be strong for their children and that it is unfair to burden their partner with the harsh reality of what it is like top cope on the outside without them. The common feeling is that the prisoner is powerless to solve these problems from onside the prison.

“On the visit we’d talk about how we felt. I would tell him I was fine, but really I was telling him a pack of lies, because more often than not, I wasn’t coping. But I didn’t want him worrying”.

Another woman gradually changed her attitude:

At the start I used to keep things back from him, because I knew he had to sit there and think about all those things and there was nothing he could do about it. But then as time went on, I started telling him everything that was happening, because I was the one having to cope and I had no one else to turn to”.

The official language of the prison is confusing enough, but then you have the slang. You are bound to feel confused, your relative may slip in to using this language quite easily, you find some of the words seem crude. Here are a few of the words and phrases that often crop up:

Adjudication – daily process when governor deals with disciplinary matters.

App – prisoners have to put in an app ( application) to the governor for anything different from normal daily routine e.g. for goods to be brought into the prison.

Association – time when prisoners are allowed out of their cells to meet, talk, play pool, watch tv etc. This is also the time that prisoners can make phone calls.

Basic – there are three levels of prison regime; Basic, Standard, Enhanced, based on behavior in prison. The higher the regime, the more privileges.

Block or Seg – prison segregation unit where prisoners are sent for bad behavior or sometimes for their own protection.

Category A, B, C and D: Prisoners are catagorised and allotted to prisons by categories. Women and young offenders are catagorised as suitable for open or closed conditions, but adult males are given one of the above categories. A being those whose escape would be regarded as highly dangerous to the public, down to D for those who can be reasonably be trusted to serve their sentence in open conditions.

Closed Visit – visit supervised by officers where the prisoner and visitor are separated by a screen. A prisoner can be up on closed visits if under suspicion of drug smuggling. Where there is proof, a prisoner may be put on closed visits for up to 3 months. However, this often means 3 months worth of visits, i.e, 6 visits rather than 3 calendar months. There fore if you chose not to visit for 3 months you will still have to do 6 closed visits before going back to normal.

Independent Monitoring Boards – These are lay people appointed to act as watchdogs and look after the interest of the prisoners. Formerly know as the BOV Board of Visitors.

In Possession – prisoners are allowed a strictly limited number of articles in possession to keep in their cells.

Knock back– a setback such as losing an appeal, being refused parole etc.

Legal letter – a prisoners letter to or from a solicitor. This is covered by prison rule 37A and cannot be opened except in the prisoners presence. Both correspondents need to write Rule 37A on the envelope.

Legal visit – lawyers are allowed to visit clients in prison without using a visiting order.

Listeners – prisoners trained by Samaritans to listen in confidence and offer emotional support to other prisoners. Listeners are trained specifically not to give advice, but to empower the ‘caller’ to make their own decisions. However, they can, albeit with the caller’s permission, pass on information to prison officers.

MDT – mandatory drug testing – random urine testing for drugs.

‘On the rule’ – a prison rule under which some prisoners are segregated for their own protection for example, either because they have large debts to other prisoners or because they have committed an offence e.g. a sex offence which would put them at risk from others.

Personal officer – each prisoner should have a personal officer to look after his/her interests.

Private spends – money sent in by relatives or friends – small amounts which can be spend in prison canteen.

PVO – privileged visiting order, sent out to visitors at the prisoners request. Prisoners can be allowed these extra visits in return for good behavior.

Shipped out – moved from one prison to another, often without warning (when it is know as ghosting)

Tariff – minimum term – the part of a life sentenced prisoners sentence, which must be served ‘for retribution and deterrence’ At the end of the tariff period the prisoner may be released on licence.

Town visit/ community visit – some prisoners will be felt to be suitable to go out for the day to a place within a certain radius of the prison (usually 20 miles) in the company of friends or relatives.

VO – visiting order, this is sent out by the prison, at the request of the prisoner, to family and friends that the prisoner wants to get a visit form.

VPU – vulnerable prisoners unit – where prisoners at risk are help (see ‘on the rules’ above)


You may be lucky enough to have supportive family and friends, or you may make friends with the partners of other prisoners when you got to visit your partner or other relative. Although it is often very helpful to discuss your worries with other people in the same boat, it is probably sensible to be a little careful until you know them better. Gossip travels fast in prison, and if you confide something personal to another prisoners partner, she may repeat it to her husband, and it may get back to your own partner, perhaps being misinterpreted along the way. You may find it helpful to speak to someone outside of the family who is a little bit removed from the situation, someone whose feeling you don’t have to feel responsible for. Like us at PCUK!