Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A silent scream that dwells our hearts…Who cares about mothers of the criminalized?

by Farhat Rehman (Ottawa) 

June 30, 2015

Being the mother of a son in prison is not the most popular and coveted credential to begin with, but when a son has a history of being an intelligent, thoughtful caring adult, who has been going through mental health challenges ever since his teenage years, his incarceration becomes an even more painful experience without an end in sight.

Yet a growing number of mothers like me continue to face the prospects of their sons behind bars for longer periods of time in harsher conditions. When the time comes nearer for parole, a new fear sets in - will my son be found in breach of harsh, burdensome parole conditions? This feeling will replace the daily dread suffered during the incarceration period.

I live in constant state of worry. Every day, thinking about my son and how he is doing. I constantly wonder whether he will get the chance to call me or will he feel like calling today, or sleep the time off.

Cases of deaths in custody, lack of action following coroner's inquests, the disregard of studies that point to costly deficits and rejection of economically sound alternatives to imprisonment always fills me with a sense of hopelessness. I have been saying to whoever will listen, that the punishing conditions of carceral settings are not at all conducive to even a minimal modicum of recovery or healing. The prison environment – whether in minimum, medium, maximum or so-called treatment facilities – still has harsh rules. It would be better for my son to be in an environment where he could receive meaningful care to help address the issues he wants to tackle.

I am in awe of the resilience my son shows, and the hope he doggedly hangs on to with each passing, day, week, month and year. I am finding it hard to live with the idea that “justice” is being served if people like him continue to be warehoused in prisons at great cost to Canadians and an emotional cost to their families.

I believe, and I have been told by many, that my son is not a criminal, and does not belong in a maximum-security institution. He is truly sorry for what happened, and has served a long time in harsh conditions and deserves a second chance to prove to himself and everyone that he can use his intellect to live better and contribute to leading a productive, useful life.

It is of deep concern that Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, one of the few voices that mothers like me trust to make recommendations for improvements to the penal system and provide an accurate estimation of the prison conditions, has been sidelined before many of his key recommendations have come to fruition. The optimism and hope that his reports generated in families like mine are currently in a state of suspended animation. I can say that we are taking it very personally - we seem to have been given the message that as families of the criminalized, we do not count.

How dare we have expectations of any “luxuries” like humane conditions with exercise space and equipment, safe areas for learning and reading, frequent family contact and programs be made available to prisoners! Allocating funds to these critical services that ensure safe re-integration of prisoners to society draw accusations of being “soft on crime”. 

The Mental Health Commission indicates in their report Equality, Dignity and Inclusion: Legislation that Enhances Human rights for People Living with Mental Illness that the “existing mental health legislation, policies and standards shows little evidence of alignment with human rights”.

Mothers like me are suppressing a silent scream that dwells our hearts. How can we make this scream reach the ears of our Public Safety Minister and our Justice Minister?

Our Justice Minister recently announced his resignation, citing his wishes to be close to his “growing family”. As mothers in my group Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS) will tell you, there is nothing more important than family, so we can understand the Justice Minister’s decision to resign. We have worked hard to raise good families. My son seemed well adjusted in school, enjoyed sports and studies and planned on going to McGill. But sadly for some of us, suddenly things went inexplicably wrong and our beloved children’s struggles with their mental health robbed them of a bright future. The focus of these families is forced to shift from scholarship to psychiatry as our loved ones end-up in an institution that we had not planned for.

No one plans for such a devastatingly bleak future for their children, but it happens. The state must not marginalize the families of the criminalized further and condemn them to continue to suffer alongside the incarcerated family member.Humane alternatives to prolonged incarceration for those with mental health concerns must be implemented now, not again ignored when the next Ashley Smith or Edward Snowshoe dies in custody. Our so-called justice system desperately needs to be humanized so that we can preserve our common humanity. 

(Thanks to Justin Piche and Tracking the Politics of Criminalization and Punishment in Canada, a blog which first published this reflection and encouraged Farhat to write it.)