The Unique Hell of Loving Someone in Jail
Thousands of men are incarcerated in prisons all over the world, marking an end to their freedom—sometimes permanently. For their mothers, daughters, and partners, the sentence marks the beginning of a painful struggle.
Illustration by Julia Kuo
I was 17 with a keen intuition when my uncle went to prison. No one told me for weeks, but I had known something was wrong since the day my grandma turned white upon answering the phone in our family home. On the other end of the line was my mum, who was calling from a beachside restaurant in Capri. She'd just received the news from my uncle's hysterical girlfriend. He's been taken, she screamed to my grandmother.
With a single phone call, everything changed. Life instantly became less about looking forward to family get-togethers and holidays, and more about arranging visits and liaising with lawyers. The man we knew as a kind, generous and gentle man became a number in a system that was convinced he was anything but.
Every Monday, a population report of all prisons in the UK is released. As of March 11, there are 85,948 inmates; 82,101 are male. But while there are less than 4,000 female prisoners behind bars, there are thousands more women confined to a sentence that isn't restricted by prisons walls, but by the loyalty that binds them to the people they choose to serve time for.
Speaking to the women behind the criminals, it's strikingly obvious that none of them signed up for this. Nine times out of ten, their stories begin with a description of the weather, or of a tedious work day activity, as if to enforce how absolutely ordinary everything was before the extraordinary event happened and threw life off balance.
"I was in a Mandarin evening class at university when I got a call from dad's friend who told me dad had been arrested," said Hattie, a 24-year-old from Lincoln.
"I remember going back into the class and finishing it. At the time, I wasn't even worried because his friend said there had been a misunderstanding. I had no idea it would end up how it did, or that he would be away for so long."
After a six month trial at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, Hattie's dad was found guilty of "conspiracy to be knowingly concerned in the production of controlled drugs by another"—in other words, planning to be involved in someone else making drugs.
"When the judge read out the nine year sentence, it didn't sink in," said Hattie. "I watched him walk down the steps and it all felt a bit dramatic, but I still couldn't comprehend right in that moment the gravity of the situation."
Hattie found a new sense of responsibility in caring for her dad's wife and her half-brother, who needed financial support. She took a year out from university while the trial was ongoing, and while she admits that she's put her life on hold for her dad, she doesn't resent it in the slightest.
"He's still my dad," she said. "He might have had a colorful life compared to most of my friend's dads, but that doesn't change anything."
Hattie isn't alone in a conviction opening up a new sense of purpose. For some, a life of crime becomes all consuming in an entirely innocent way, and attempting to navigate and disprove a justice system that has failed a loved one becomes a full-time job.
Lyn Ulbricht's son, Ross, is the creator of the darknet black market, Silk Road. He's currently in prison in New York, where he is serving five concurrent sentences: two life sentences, another for 20 years, one for five years, and one more for 15 years. As it stands, Ross is 32. Without a successful appeal, will never leave prison.
Following a controversial trial, Ulbricht has made it her mission to use her son's incarceration for the greater good by starting the Free Ross campaign. Her hope is not only to reduce her son's sentence, but to change drug policy so that other families don't have to suffer the same fate.
"I have to know that I have done absolutely everything I can to get him out of this situation. I feel like I've been called to this purpose. I feel like Frodo in The Hobbit, like, Why me? Why have I got this ring? I'm like the last person in the world that should look after this ring! You just have to step up and meet that challenge," she said.
But standing up to the challenge doesn't come without complications. Last year, Ulbricht suffered a heart attack and came within minutes of death. Doctors told Ulbricht that her heart was healthy—the pain of having her son inside had quite literally broken her heart.
"It's just so hard to have him in there. The possibility that he will never leave prison is devastating. It's such a waste of an amazing person. It's the pain of not being able to be with my son at home, or thinking that he will never be able to have a family, or children, or just hang with us and have a meal.
"We have to have all our visits supervised and constrained, and all our phone calls recorded. That's the hardest part. And that's why I'm so committed and why I can't stop. Because that is just unthinkable to me."
Ulbricht's renewed sense of purpose exists in every aspect of her life, and while she spends time campaigning for the release of her son, others are struggling to come to terms with life after prison.
When Sasha's* husband was released from prison after serving a 20 year sentence on a conspiracy charge, grappling with normality didn't come easy.
"The after effects of having served such a long time behind bars are huge," she said. "After 20 years of weekly visits, when I finally had him home he'd become so angry and aggravated— verging on violent."
Simply knowing that there would be psychological repercussions of such a long sentence wasn't preparation enough for the reintroduction into society.
"The damage doesn't stop upon release, because there's no help for families of released prisoners. There's no reintroduction into society, you're just thrown out into a world that you haven't been part of for years.
"When he went inside his son was eight, when he was released he was 18. He didn't understand how to use smart phones or the internet—he still called email addresses 'email numbers.' An entire decade had passed him by and we had to be part of helping him to figure out what had happened during that time."
It becomes apparent that that the one-size-fits-all justice system isn't just failing the men behind bars, but the women on the outside whose emotional labour cannot be equated in years and called out before a court.
During our interview, Lyn Ulbricht told me that I'd like Ross if I met him. I don't doubt her.
That's the thing about Ross and many other offenders—they're just people with regular families. They're somebody's son or husband or brother, or even just a friend, and their absence on the outside world goes way beyond their sentence.
It's not always about agreeing with what the perpetrator has done, but about accepting it and finding a way to get through the everyday, while remaining loyal to the person that you know they are.
"I'm not defending Silk Road," said Ulbricht. "I'm not saying that Ross didn't make bad choices. I'm not saying he wasn't reckless in his twenties. I'm not condoning everything that he's done. But I am proud of him—he's a good person. He's my son, and I'll never desert him."
* Name has been changed