Opinion

With a loved one behind bars, life can be stressful, painful and traumatic

Elizabeth Leenheer has a brother in prison for murder. When she read the most recent report by Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, she was moved to write about her reaction to it.

Edmonton guest columnist describes life with brother in prison, reacts to corrections report

If we treat those who do harm with compassion, we send them a message of hope and redemption, writes Elizabeth Leenheer. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

Last week Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, issued a scathing report on the way Correctional Service Canada communicates with next of kin when an inmate dies.

Sapers said the CSC has not been compassionate, open or transparent with families. He cited a case where a family member arrived to view the body of his loved one at the appointed time but was informed the inmate had already been cremated. The ashes were couriered to him without prior notice, the report said.

Sapers made several recommendations, including that the correctional service quickly disclose as many relevant facts to families immediately following a death in custody, and that it release all mortality reviews and investigation reports to families in a timely manner, and in their entirety.

When I first learned of this report, I was hopeful. It illustrated that there are people who care, pay attention, ask questions and most importantly are courageous enough to speak up, share their stories and inspire others to do the same.

Elizabeth Leenheer is the founder of the T.O.D.D. (Together Overcoming Darkness and Despair) Support and Advocacy Foundation.

While this report identifies systemic issues, it also speaks of a larger narrative within our society — one that chooses sides and declares that you are either with or against those who commit crimes, that if you associate with, support and love prisoners you are somehow to blame and in favour of what they have done.

It is because of this narrative that those with a loved one in prison are misunderstood and mistreated. It is why they often remain silent, anonymous. They live in darkness, full of despair.

'Someone I love has done the unthinkable'

Having someone you love in prison is overwhelmingly stressful, incredibly painful and terribly traumatic.

Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, says family members often have to fight for years to learn how and why their loved ones died in prison. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

My brother has been incarcerated for the last eight years and throughout this time I have struggled. I have spent time grieving, fighting, navigating, learning, educating, recovering and accepting the fact that someone I love has done the unthinkable and now lives in prison.

Throughout this time I have tried to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with my brother. I have attempted to hold him accountable, and to be consciously respectful of the life that he took and who his actions really hurt.

My brother committed a horrific murder that caused irreparable harm to a lot of people. I do not condone violence and I believe there must be consequences for taking a life. Yet I love my brother. Nothing that anyone can say or do will ever change that. To me, love is unconditional.

Family members judged, victimized

Prisons are cruel, dangerous and inhumane; prisoners are being neglected and abused. It is not socially acceptable to hug a thug, it is not the norm to want to help or care about prisoners, and those who do are criticized, rejected and attacked.

Being tough on crime gets attention and many people believe that our prisons are too soft. They call for more suffering and rejoice when it happens. I know the desire for vengeance is seductive and powerful, a human reaction that permeates our society.

I know that those with a loved one in prison are innocent. Yet they are scrutinized, discriminated against, stigmatized, misunderstood, judged and victimized.

Their feelings, experiences, wants, needs, grief and pain are often overlooked, dismissed and forgotten. I know this because this is my reality, a reality I have lived with for the last eight years.

At times, I carry shame for what my brother did, and am viewed and treated as though I too am guilty, through my association with him. I know that my experience is not unique and that it is the norm for the entire prison family.

We, as a society, express sorrow, disgust and outrage towards wrongdoers. We condemn the liars, the cheaters, the abusers and the murderers among us.

We are quick to point a finger, pass judgment upon and cast away from us those who harm the innocent.

This Sapers report reveals neglect of those in the care and custody of our correctional system. It shows that our own justice system is harming the innocent. We are no different, no better and perhaps even worse than those we are punishing, as we have become apathetic to this harm. We accept it.

Mistreating inmates hurts their relatives

We are not civilized, redemptive, compassionate or just when we allow the neglect and abuse of prisoners. In fact, we are guilty of the very acts we have outlawed. By mistreating prisoners, we are hurting those who love them; innocent friends, siblings, parents and children.

The disturbing irony of this report is that it shows that we have become what we fear, what we hate and what we condemn; that we have become the perpetrators and are creating more victims. We are perpetuating the cycle of harm and violence, behind prison walls, funded with our tax dollars.

After reading this report I am ashamed that I have accepted this unjust reality. Even though I am immersed in it, I was unable to fully comprehend what was happening. I am saddened by what this report has shown, but I am still hopeful.

The unjust reality that we have created and allowed can be changed. It will change because we can do better, because we are better. When I think of the future, I know that where we are today is not where we are going to end up. If we choose to treat those who do harm with compassion, we can send them, their loved ones and ourselves a powerful message; one of hope and redemption.

I would like to dedicate this column to the memory of those whose lives have been taken and to those who suffer. May you find comfort in the fact that you are not forgotten, that you are not alone and that you have allies who care, pay attention and ask questions. They are courageous enough to speak out and share their stories, and hope to inspire you to do the same.

Aug. 10 is Prisoner Justice Day, a day to honour those who have died and who suffer while in custody. I invite you to join in a gathering at 4 p.m. at the Alberta legislature to show that you too believe we are all better than the worst thing we have done, that everyone matters and that change is possible.

Elizabeth Leenheer is the founder of the T.O.D.D. (Together Overcoming Darkness and Despair) Support and Advocacy Foundation, which supports people with loved ones in prison.

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