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Sunday, 26 February 2012

You can't choose your relations

Most people, I think, would like to look back through their family tree and find some interesting or noteworthy characters. Maybe a politician, a mistress of a Royal, an heroic soldier, or perhaps a darker side to their family such as a slave trader or criminal. But that's OK when it's in the past isn't it. We can distance ourselves and our present lives from anything that our ancestors might have done, because we are not them. True?

Funny then how that doesn't apply to current family situations. If you find out that a family member has gone to prison for example, do you react the same as if that family member lived 100 or 200 years ago? I suspect not. And I don't understand why.

There is a term, "guilt by association". This actually has some legal standing, not only in several American states, but also in English law. It means if you know about an illegal (or just plain wrong) act and do nothing to stop it, you are as guilty as the person actually committing that act. It does NOT mean that anyone who simply knows the individual is as guilty as the criminal themselves. It is perfectly possible to know someone and not condone their actions. I know this because I am one of those people.

I learned this weekend that people who know me (or know of me) in real life have been reading this blog. My first reaction to that is Great! That's what it's for! But then I started to think about how what is written here could potentially change how those people treat me the next time we meet or have to work together. It's not that it is any secret that my husband is in prison in the US, or even what he did to end up there. Everyone who knows me socially, knows about my marriage. I am still the same person I was before those readers found this blog - still doing the same job in the same way, living in the same crappy social housing and still liking the same music and speaking in the same language with the same spiritual beliefs. But now not only do I wonder if they will treat me differently (however subtly) but also if I will treat them differently too. It's an unusual situation: I know roughly who they are, and they obviously know me, but they may not know that I know. Sounds more like an espionage thriller than a day in the life of an inmate wife....

The reason I'm posting about this though is more because I have been doing some genealogy recently. I did my husband's birth mother's family a while ago and thanks to the Mormons I managed to trace them back to the late 1600s to their origins in the Bayern area in the Bavarian region of Germany. I've been there, it's lovely, and I haven't yet found the exact reason for their relocation to what is now Maryland USA. In my husband's family there are wealthy timber merchants and a politician (to his amusement, a Republican), but no other criminals that I've discovered.

Last weekend I did some digging into my own family history. My mum tried a few years before she died, but did not get very far, mainly because she couldn't get access to any documents (pre-internet) and because our families seem to have their children later in life so there are bigger generation spans and most of them have died. We're also not in any way shape or form a "close family".

I used a relatively new site findmypast.co.uk which allows you to purchase blocks of credits to access documents, rather than having to sign up for a whole year's subscription. This was my magic key! I have now tentatively gone back on both my parent's sides to around 1800, but I now have some mysteries of my own to solve:

* Why did my great great grandfather retire from the police before he was 35, and how and why did he show up on a census return aged 16 living at an address in Cheapside London with no parents and only a "Person in charge" given?

* Why does his daughter show up much later with her husband and also a different man living with them, with his status given as "father in law"?

* Did both sides of the family know each other? And was one a lodger of the other family at one point as a census return suggests?

* If my grandad had a sister, who lived just 20 miles from the rest of us, why didn't my parents ever tell me, especially when I knew about his brothers?

One of our family names is Coldrey. It's not particularly common, and I'd be interested to hear from anyone else with that name, who might be able to shed some light on my retired policeman.

On the whole though, my history is how I had been told. We're of simple country stock and really haven't moved out of our native county before my parents up-sticks to Cornwall. I'll be doing a trip back to our main village in a couple of weeks so maybe I'll have some more pieces of the puzzle after that.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Could you live without friends? (WAP petition)

I've been away for a few days and been busy as it's been my birthday, but I need to post a link to a petition that has been set up by the folks at the Write A Prisoner website.

To sign it, click HERE and please add it to your Facebook, Twitter, etc

The rationale behind it is as follows.....

"We are WriteAPrisoner.com, a website that posts the following types of profiles for inmates: Educational, Employment, Housing, Legal, and our most popular, Pen-Pal. Members of the public choose to write the inmates posted on our website via postal mail. We do not give inmates access to the Internet in any way. In 2003 the Florida Department of Corrections proposed a rule to ban inmates from seeking pen-pals. This rule bans inmates from participating in all of our programs. We attended the State’s public hearing on the proposed rule in Tallahassee, Florida, as did representatives from many other organizations that oppose the rule, including the ACLU, the Catholic Church, members of the public, ministers, and others. Not one person showed up to support the rule! Still, in 2004, the rule was implemented by former Florida Department of Corrections’ Secretary, James Crosby. (Incidentally, Mr. Crosby, who implemented this rule, has since been imprisoned himself on corruption charges.) In 2009, along with Freedom Through Christ Prison Ministry (one of the oldest prison ministries in this country), we challenged this rule in Federal Court, represented by a highly competent team of lawyers from the Florida Justice Institute. Presenting NO EVIDENCE of wrongdoing by pen-pals or WriteAPrisoner.com of any kind, the district court arbitrarily ruled against us (and the inmates).

We appealed to a panel of judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in hopes that justice would prevail. Again, presenting not a single piece of evidence of wrongdoing, a panel of three judges ruled against us in yet another stunningly arbitrary decision. While we pursue the appeals process, we are hopeful that you will sign this petition asking Governor Scott of the State of Florida to repeal this senseless and destructive rule.
Research overwhelmingly shows that inmates having access to contacts outside of prison has a highly positive and effective impact on rehabilitation. Still, the State of Florida has cut them completely off without even so much as a single documented problem. Numerous studies show us the State’s position is counterproductive to helping these people turn their lives around and returning to us as well adjusted citizens: http://writeaprisoner.com/why-write-a-prisoner/default.aspx

Since the adoption of this ban in Florida, two other states have followed suit and adopted almost verbatim language of the Florida Department of Corrections’ rule that bans our mail. They are Governor Nixon from Missouri and Governor Daniels from Indiana. We intend to send this petition to all three governors. Please support what little is left of a First Amendment for prisoners or those seeking to help them turn their lives around, and sign this petition today. Thank you!"

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Not Public Property

There are a lot of stereotypes that go with prison; the bully guard, the cruel warden, the flirty nurse/teacher/librarian, the tough convict, the wimpy convict, and of course the inmate's wife. How do stereotypes become? In most cases, it is because there are indeed a very small number of people who do act/look/behave in such a way that is extreme. And because these are extreme cases, people tend to talk about them, and so the myth evolves into a stereotype that most people recognise and many people actually thinks is the real thing.

There was the first episode of a new drama on BBC 1 last night, called "Prison Wives". It's not a documentary, it uses fictional characters and a fictional prison, but it portrays the lives of an assortment of women whose husbands are locked up in the UK. I really was in two minds whether to watch it, and saw the first three or four minutes after the credits started before I turned it off. But the tiny bit that I did see, made me think it would be a good drama, probably addressing some of the issues that British inmate wives face in a sensitive and unsensationaistic way. Of course it is entertainment, but the BBC often has a way of commissioning dramas like this that handle topics in a far more grown-up way than many so-called "documentary" makers do.

One of the reasons I decided not to watch the programme was that I'd had enough of prison for one day. I don't do my husband's time for him, and I don't feel obliged to make it the centre of my universe in the way that it is for him. While I have an interest in prison issues and I like murder-mysteries, that doesn't mean it is the only thing that interests me.

When I got home from work last night there was a message in my inbox on one of the prison forums I inhabit, from a woman from Associated Press UK, asking me if I would like to take part in a film about "women who fall in love with inmates". Most of the time, I just delete messages like that, especially when there is a specific section on that particular forum where the media can post their requests for guinea pigs. Last night though, it really rubbed me the wrong way.

It is one thing to post a general request for all to see, but quite another to invade my inbox with a request, especially when they have obviously not taken the time to read what is publicly available about me and my husband. If they had done so, they would know that I did not fall in love with an inmate, I fell in love with a free man who then went on to comit a crime and is now an inmate. Not the same thing at all. They would also know, if they chose to find out, that I also write to several other inmates across America - why don't they want to know about friendships with inmates? Why don't they want to talk to me about two of my pals who have both spent time on Death Row (in different states) and who are now in general population serving life sentences?

But what really got me was the old ploy of "your chance to tell your story". Am I expected to bite their hand off and cry "Of course I'd love to take part in something that would lead to so much ridicule and pity being sent my way, and may damage my chances of moving to the US or my husband's chances of parole at a later date". It would not be our chance to tell our story; it would be us being used to illustrate whatever whimsical slant the producer wanted to put on their own perceptions of what life is like for "someone like me".

I came to the conclusion several years ago that there is no way to show on film this life that my husband and I have without the majority of people either thinking we are sad, mad or bad. The minute you start to try and explain, it makes you sound desperate or dillusional, even to those who may not immediately think poorly of you. I even find myself thinking how daft I sound sometimes, so I can imagine what others must think. I decided that film is not the medium to use if I want to give a positive portrayal, at least, not someone elses' film.

I write this blog because I know there are people out there who face a similar situation to us, with the hope that they can find information and maybe a little solidarity here. I am open and honest with the people I meet face to face about where my husband is and why, but I don't parade around town with a banner to make a statement about it. I don't eat, sleep and think prison 24/7 and I have absolutely no intention of doing so.

If anyone is going to make a film or write a book or play about us, it will be us. We're not some Victorian freak show that you can amuse yourself with, and frankly we don't fit into the stereotype that the media seem desperate to show anyway. We're just two people making the best of a bad situation together.

If you want juicy scandal, try the Lohans or Hiltons of this world.