In a previous column I acknowledged the excellent work of Prison Care Ministries in Hamilton, supporting those who have been released from Corrections facilities to reintegrate into the community.
Prisoners Aid and Rehabilitation Society (PARS) Waikato, is another community organisation that I hold in high regard, not least because they care for those who often become isolated victims of the offending of their own family members. PARS works for a safer society by providing support and reintegration services to offenders and their families/whanau. Beginning in Dunedin in 1877, PARS has operated in Hamilton since 1959.
John Booth, Co-Ordinator at PARS Waikato, sees a huge need in supporting families of offenders. "Families are often the forgotten victims of a crime. The focus is on the victim, as it rightly should be, and the offender, and on the justice process," he says. "The families of offenders are a group of people invisible to most of the population, mostly facing their problems alone, particularly at the time their family member is arrested, and they are often alienated by family and the wider community."
PARS provides practical support from the time a family member is arrested and particularly if they are remanded in custody. This is a stressful time with the greatest need for families at this time being the provision of accurate information. PARS will provide a court worker for the family at court. "This can be an extremely daunting process for the family and immediately after sentencing there are many questions – PARS can provide someone to listen to concerns, to help with WINZ enquiries and to explain the prison visits process," John notes.
"Once you’re in prison, you get fed three times a day, and you’re looked after with a roof over your head," says John.
"This isn’t necessarily the case for the families – often they have lost their breadwinner and might lose their house and might not get three meals a day. We help them access the support they require."
Children with imprisoned family members are also a hidden and isolated group. Their particular needs and suffering are compounded by the stigma attached to having a family member in prison.
Families of prisoners suffer a number of disadvantages. It is the caregivers who often carry the real cost of imprisonment as they are caught in a struggle to meet the competing needs of running a household, the inmate who expects continued support, and the children whose lives may have been disrupted.
Often these families are not well-off to start with, and having a member in prison imposes further financial hardships. Families may need to apply for a benefit and move to less expensive accommodation. The difficult circumstances that families can find themselves in can disrupt children’s schooling, cause loss of income, jeopardise accommodation, and result in dislocation from communities. PARS believes that when resources are provided to these families it can help to break the cycle of crime.
Research shows families play a crucial role in linking the prisoner to the outside world and that prisoners who are able to maintain family ties during the term of imprisonment are less likely to re-offend. Maintaining
links with family can also give a released prisoner some
ties to the community, accommodation, emotional
support and possibly assistance to find employment or training upon release.
Most prisons are in relatively isolated locations, including those near large towns, which makes visiting both inconvenient and expensive. PARS provides a van to transport families for visiting once a week.
Because there is also a great deal of evidence that the period immediately after release from prison is when reoffending is most likely to occur, I have been a strong advocate for the Government’s "Out of Gate" programme and other important rehabilitation initiatives. Prisoners on release may tend toward over-indulging in what they think they have missed out on.
The successful reintegration of prisoners is good not only for the prisoner and their family but also the community. PARS believes it is necessary to prepare prisoners for release in such a way that will reduce the risk of re-imprisonment and re-offending, and maintaining healthy relationships with families whilst imprisoned can only help with this goal.
Organisations that care for those in our communities who attract little public sympathy or support play an especially important role. Every former prisoner who can be assisted to avoid re-offending represents a positive outcome for all of us. I salute John Booth and his PARS team and Board for their dedication and valuable service to our community.