The Social Stigma of having Family in Prison

Growing up I had to tell everyone that I only had one brother. My parents told me to not mention my oldest brother at all, to act like he didn’t exist and to only talk about him at home.

But, I had another brother. He was ten years older than me but he wasn’t around much when I was growing up. My first real memory of him was when he was about 19 and he’d come home for the weekend. He’d been in care since he was young and there were times when we’d go to visit him, getting the train or driving and I remember spending a lot of time travelling but I have no real memories of those visits. I just remember him turning up on the doorstep one day and me wondering who he was. I didn’t know him but when it clicked that he was my brother I loved him and got to know him whilst he was with us.

He came and went a lot when I was growing up. He’d be around for a weekend, for a week or two and then he’d disappear for a few months. There was one point where he was around for months, he got a job and got a flat, with my parents helping as much as they could. I thought he’d be around forever then but it just didn’t last.

You see, my brother had real issues when he was growing up and he went off the rails so much. His issues led him to experiment with drugs from a young age which in turn led him to a life of crime. Those years in care merged seamlessly into years in young offenders institutes and then spells in prison. I can’t remember how many times he was in prison and have blanked from memory the horrendous things he did to get put there. His life was a spiral of drugs and prison, the drugs getting harder and the prison sentences getting longer as the years went by.

The Social Stigma of having Family in Prison

But, this all made my parents want to protect me, to stop people judging me because of him and the mistakes he had made. So growing up, as far as anyone knew, I had one brother. And at home I would write to the other one each week, telling him about school, about friends and anything else in my life. I’m not sure how interesting those letters were from a 13 year old me but he replied every week too, writing pages about books he had read, courses he had done and anything else that was on his mind. He seemed to like prison, he loved having a roof over his head, no bills to pay, no responsibilities and at one point he even had a games console and TV in his cell. It was a more comfortable life than any convict deserved and one that made him so institutionalised and happy to be inside.

He was in prison the last time for about seven years. Serving half of a fifteen year sentence. I remember going to visit him a couple of times with my parents and not being able to tell friends about it, pretending I was off school sick instead of driving hundreds of miles to see my brother in a prison visiting room. Twice we saw him on open visits, sitting around tables and getting drinks from a vending machine but once we saw him on a closed visit – I’m still not sure what he’d done to have the privilege of an open visit taken away from him but he was behind glass and it was just so sad to see my brother like that.

Every trip was so emotional and so degrading. We had to go through a process similar to airport security and I remember my Mum being pretty humiliated by the suggestion that she might try to smuggle things in with her. I remember her taking a present in for him one year as it was his birthday and she’d even wrapped it up – naively thinking that they would just give it to him rather than opening it and dissecting every inch of it first.

My eldest brother isn’t someone I talk about. He isn’t part of my life anymore, and hasn’t been for over a decade. But my brother was a part of my life growing up, as much as he could be. Even when he wasn’t there he was a constant factor – I would write to him and talk to him on the phone when I could. When he was home he would look after me, pick me up from school and draw the most amazing Disney pictures I have ever seen. He was always pretty creative.

But, he was someone I couldn’t talk about. Someone that no-one knew about. He was a secret that I had to keep in a separate part of my mind, keeping him locked away in case people would think less of our family. My parents didn’t want me to lose any more friends at school than I had already lost through being bullied so much and they were trying their best to protect me.

But as a child it is so hard to keep things separate. It’s so hard to not talk about things. Visiting prisons as a child was such a confusing and often scary and harrowing experience and something that I wasn’t allowed to talk about or even mention outside of our home. Visiting a prison is not something I would ever want my children to have to go through but, he was my brother. A brother I couldn’t talk about, a brother that to the outside world didn’t exist for years – all because of social stigma and a fear of being judged.

Even now not many people in my life know I have that older brother, they don’t know about this part of our family history and when added to everything else I have spoken about in the past – my issues with my mother and getting kicked out of home at 17 amongst other things – people don’t think I can have many other skeletons in the closet. But, I can understand, in hindsight, why I had to keep my brother behind closed doors, why I couldn’t talk about him and why it was for the best.

People do judge, people do jump to conclusions and it is so easy to get tarred with the same brush. But, having a brother, born ten years before me, that spent his formative years in and out of the judicial system didn’t mean that I would be the same. Siblings, and other family members, don’t automatically follow in each other’s footsteps and although we were once close he and I couldn’t be further apart so many years down the line. But, it doesn’t stop me thinking back to that time, when I had a brother who I loved and cared about unreservedly, unconditionally, and wish I could have spoken about him, made him more a part of my life and just been open with my friends.

As a teenager I had a brother, he was in prison and I went months without even saying his name – all to make sure that the foundations of my life weren’t blemished by his mistakes.

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  1. What a raw and honest post. Every family has its secrets but I can’t imagine what it was like to deny the existence of such a close family member x

  2. Addiction is such a horrible thing; it really does ruin lives. Such a shame you didn’t get to know your brother properly, but you should have never been made to hide him – he had a problem it shouldn’t have been stigmatised x

  3. What a powerful post, Donna. I feel so sad that you couldn’t speak about your brother . That’s an incredibly difficult situation to put you in and an awful thing to expect from a child. As you say, he was your brother and as that you still loved him, no matter what. As a child you don’t really differentiate between your love and the things he’s done. You just love, unconditionally x

  4. Good on you for sharing. Hard for children to understand but I think a lot of parents would feel they had to do the same thing. We used to laugh because my uncle age 37 married a 17 year old girl from a family with a lot of brothers who’d been in trouble with the police, saying his choice was interesting. (She was very strange anyway and it was a weird relationship, the put their eldest child in care because he was too dangerous with the younger children, then they divorced and later remarried having more kids). We treated it as a joke but although we werent particularly close in relationship or distance to them, I’m not sure if we lived closer I’d have wanted N growing up hanging round with them much as a family. You can’t choose family, but if they’re code daily you still want to be close to them

  5. This must have been a very hard post for you to write. I hope having the courage to write this you will find some inner peace and acceptance about what happened

  6. What a moving and honest post Donna, it must have been so hard for you to comprehend as a child why the brother that you loved went away. I hope one day that maybe he can move on with his life and you maybe get to see him again x

  7. Oh that’s so sad, Donna. What I find the saddest is that your parents told you not to mention him. Your letters must have given him a lot of happiness in the solitude of prison. When we have children, we don’t know what kind of path they will take in life…. it’s scary, isn’t it? Xxx

  8. This is so interesting, It sounds like you provide him lots of unconditional love. Thank you for sharing your story and it will provide lots of new insight for many (including me). Big hug.

  9. Gosh Donna, what a terrible thing to grow up with, having to pretend your brother didn’t exist. And how sad that people would judge you for your family.

  10. Have a son who served 10 years and he “liked” the security if a roof over his head with no bills to pay as well. Hard world we live in where fir some it is a better fit than being outside.
    Sorry your parents were so ashamed of him that you could not talk about him and enjoy the time you had with him.
    I would not fancy taking a child in either but did see some kids visiting when we were there.
    Everything went into G had to be bought and delivered direct by Amazon.

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