Case Study: The ripple effect of imprisonment on families

When my son went to prison, it was a shock to everyone. He was a good man with a popular business, happy family, and lots of friends. We had hoped and prayed that he would be found innocent – that he could stay at home with us, with his children – but, just like that, he was found guilty and taken away from us. This was our first encounter with the justice system; we weren’t prepared… Nothing can prepare you for that. It was a massive loss – like a bereavement – and it devastated the whole family.

In prison, he struggled with his mental health a lot, especially at first. I was so worried for him, and still am. The ripple effect on the rest of the family’s mental health has been huge, especially for his children. That’s the biggest thing of all: the detrimental impact on the kids and their wellbeing. It has been such a traumatic time for them, and they miss their dad so much. They used to go on bike rides with him every weekend, and now their bikes sit untouched because they are just waiting for him to come home. This is why family contact is so important.

I want to be there for him as much as I can and help maintain his relationship with the kids, but often posting letters into the prison is slow, cards get lost and emails take three days to reach him. It makes it hard to maintain this contact, which is really difficult on all of us.

We have faced a lot of uncertainty during this time. It feels like we are in limbo; our lives have been put on hold. And when we look to the future, we are confronted with the unknown… Even though I want him home, the thought of my son’s release brings up a bundle of new worries: Will he be able to get a job? Will he face judgement and stigma? Will they have to move away? How will the children cope?

I feel like I have to be strong for everyone around me. We are all struggling – my son, his kids, his partner, his sisters – and I have to support them all. I want to help them and be a role model, but it takes a toll on my own mental health. The pressure is immense, and the worries are never-ending. Sometimes I struggle to cope…

Although our friends and family have all been so supportive, I still sometimes feel frightened to go into a restaurant, a café or a bar in case people are talking about my son and my family. I try to hold me hold my head up and ignore it, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care, or that it doesn’t affect me. I have to stay strong to cope… But the gossip and the stares have had a big impact on some of my family’s mental wellbeing, causing them to hide away. I worry for other families like ours who are going through this as well.

This time has really shown me the importance of family and, most importantly, of staying together and supporting one another. Families dealing with the imprisonment of a loved one must be shown kindness, empathy and understanding. You just don’t know the trauma and despair that people might be dealing with. They are innocent victims in this – left heartbroken by this living bereavement, missing their family member, and trying to make sense of all that has happened.

This has been our first encounter with the justice system, and I have been shocked at how impersonal it has been. During sentencing, the needs of individuals and their families need to be considered more. People’s identities are erased – everyone forgets that they have mothers, partners, siblings and children that they will be leaving behind. This has a huge impact on the wellbeing of everyone involved.

I am grateful for the continuing support from Families Outside, who have helped guide our family through this new and often frightening process. Without them, I wouldn’t know anything. They have also provided me an outlet. Having someone to talk to about how I am feeling has helped so much, and they never judge. It is really important to me that I have been able to work with Families Outside to help shape the support that they provide and push for changes to the justice system that will benefit other families like ours.


If your family has been affected by imprisonment and is feeling the impact on their mental health, you are not alone. You can reach out to our non-judgemental Support & Information Helpline.

This blog post is also featured by Scottish Families Affected By Drugs & Alcohol.

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