The BBC drama Prisoners’ Wives has been picked up by Vision TV in Canada. Photo courtesy of Vision TV

Prisoners' Wives looks to spark conversation on prison families

By 
  • September 13, 2012

It may be the world of make believe, but the British drama series Prisoners’ Wives is all about a harsh, complex reality. The producers of the BBC show and people who work with prisoners and their families hope the series sparks a conversation about the social cost of incarceration.

“When a man or a woman goes to jail the whole family does the time. It changes everything in the family dynamic,” Deacon Mike Walsh of the Friends of Dismas told The Catholic Register.

The Friends of Dismas, an ecumenical ministry for ex-prisoners in Toronto, is launching a new support team dedicated to working with families of those on the inside.

That makes Prisoners’ Wives “very timely,” Walsh said.

Prisoners’ Wives has been picked up in Canada by Vision TV and airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. It tackles the stories of four women with loved ones who are imprisoned — Lou, who has tried to escape poverty by selling drugs; Francesca, who has risen to fabulous wealth on the criminal entrepreneurship of her husband and now loses it all; middle-class, middle-aged Harriet, who finds herself bewildered and isolated when her son goes to jail; and pregnant Gemma, who gradually learns her husband is not who she thought he was.

The women find themselves on a journey of discovery about themselves and their relationships while the men inside struggle to keep up. Both the prisoners and their wives have to answer basic questions.

The family dynamic of prison life hasn’t often made it to either the big or the little screen. While there are plenty of cop shows and prison dramas about the lives of criminals and workings of the criminal justice system, there are no great films about wives, children and parents left behind.

“In popular entertainment, TV drama, have people thought about the plight of prisoners’ wives before? No. Uh-uh,” said executive producer Rebecca de Souza. “It’s delightful, because we could be the first one’s to do it.

“There are a lot of spiritual journeys prisoners have to go through. (Harriet’s son) Gavin goes on a pretty misguided spiritual journey. He thinks it’s a spiritual journey but it really isn’t.”

But the writers, directors and actors had no easy, well established film clichés to fall back on. Instead they had to do hundreds of hours of research talking to prison families, chaplains, guards, social workers and prisoners.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for POPS (the British charity Partners of Prisoners) and other organizations to engage with and influence the public dialogue as well as making the public aware of the support services we offer,” said POPS policy and research officer Rebecca Cheung. “(The show) raised a number of key issues such as the bullying of children of prisoners and the diversity of individuals affected by imprisonment.”

The show has been successful enough in the UK to be picked up for a second season and POPS has noticed much more conversation in British media and on social media about prison issues from the point of view of families.

“Families of prisoners are generally speaking invisible,” said Cheung. “Prison life in the UK conversely receives quite a lot of attention.”

Public dialogue is obsessed with punishment but ignores social costs, said de Souza.

“Is he being punished enough? Is he being rehabilitated enough? Should they be allowed televisions in their cells? We’re all very interested in those subjects,” she said. “What people don’t talk about is the massive community around him that is equally affected.”

Walsh for one hopes the drama might prick up a few ears to the real spiritual needs of real prison families.

“(Imprisonment) has a ripple effect we often never think about, and it is a time when the parish community needs to come together in support,” Walsh said.

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