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So what’s life really like for women when their men are in jail?

BBC’s hard-hitting drama Prisoners’ Wives, on screen tonight, is winning rave reviews but is it true to life? Jane Hardy talks to three Northern Irish women whose partners have done time

It’s called the silent sentence and refers to the tough experience of wives, girlfriends and children while their men are doing time. Currently a thousand or so women in Northern Ireland are serving what you could call parallel bird.

Prisoners’ Wives, the new BBC drama by Julie Gearey that’s part-soap, part issue television, started last week and follows the lives of three women on the outside as they adapt to lives without their men and have to deal alone with children, money (or lack of it), the shock of learning their husband has committed a crime and society’s attitudes to them.

The new drama focuses on life in England and has an inner city emphasis on drug dealing — something one of the wives engages in to make some cash. However, the tensions between the men and their women — exemplified by Gemma who is about to have her partner’s baby and discovers he may be guilty of murder — reveals similarities with the daily life of Northern Irish prisoners’ wives.

For example, once a partner recovers from the shock of the arrest, and of finding out the man they married isn’t who they thought, there is often the question of what to tell the children. One of our interviewees — like Lou in the drama — hasn’t told her children their dad is in jail. Another told her children the truth as she felt “they wouldn’t trust me” otherwise. The third interviewee, Jeanette Ervine, didn’t really have the option of non-disclosure when her high profile husband David went to Long Kesh.

We talked to these three women to discover what life is really like while he’s inside.

‘When he came out at Christmas dressed as Santa our son asked if he had escaped’

Tracy (44) lives with her three children near Banbridge. She says:

My kids sat and watched Prisoners’ Wives with me. I thought it was very good and my oldest boy even turned off X Factor to look at it.

We found it really interesting and are looking forward to the next episode. I’m a full-time mum and my oldest boy is 12 tomorrow.

I also have 11-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.

I am a bit worried about the girl in the programme who’s drug dealing and has a young son. She’s going to get caught and her son will get taken off her. It’s sad but gives an edge to it.

It was gripping but I don’t watch any soaps so can’t compare it with them.

My hubby’s in for drugs and we don’t even know yet when he’ll be out. He’s been in Maghaberry for a year on remand and could be out in five to six months.

I did relate to the programme, especially the girl with the young son.

And it was interesting that she hadn’t told him what was going on and when her little boy asks why his father is wearing a red bib, she tells him it’s for Manchester United.

A lot of women haven’t told their kids but I’ve been completely honest with mine.

If I hadn’t, they would have said ‘Mummy, you lied to us’ and they wouldn’t have trusted me anymore. I just sat them down and told them as much as I knew. I didn’t want them finding out from somebody else.

I didn’t visit my husband at the start as I was too cross but I visit now. He had his own business, and I only found out recently he owed some money, although not very much. It was also to do with the crowd he was hanging out with and the party scene.

He’d taken drugs since he was 17-years-old. At first it was cannabis, then he got addicted to cocaine.

He’s had counselling and he’s grown up a bit. I’m managing all right financially and have always been good with money.

I have a very good family round me as well but I don’t like asking for money unless I really need to.

I am looking forward to him getting out in a way but he’s going to have to prove himself. He came out for Christmas and I got him to dress up as Santa. I hadn’t told the children, then the wee fellow suddenly said ‘Daddy, have you escaped?’

I haven’t had any friends fall out with me because he’s inside. Some people would look down on you but they can think what they like. I haven’t done anything.

In a way, it’s been a blessing. He’s been clean for a year now and I think he might not be alive by now if he hadn’t been sent to prison.”

‘People said David had a past and was unclean’

Jeanette Ervine is the widow of PUP leader David Ervine, lives in Belfast and has two sons, Mark (38) and Owen (31), and two grandchildren. She says:

I haven’t seen Prisoners’ Wives but I’m sure it would be different from my experience. When David went to prison (in November 1974), you could say it was a shock.

My son Mark was just two and the whole thing was alien to us. A prison was somewhere I’d never been. I’d never been in a police station either, my family was law abiding.

It was very emotional when David was arrested. When he was on remand in Crumlin Gaol, there were three visits a week.

There were prison warders present and you couldn’t go through until your name was called, it was a whole procedure.

Once David was sent to Long Kesh and you had a half hour visit each week.

It wasn’t really enough time to cram in everything you wanted to say — and we were herded in like cattle.

I took my son Mark in every week, he never missed it and I felt it was important for him. But he never understood where his daddy was, and I told him it was daddy’s work.

David was in prison for five and a half years, but there were people who were in for much longer.

At the time, my life revolved around keeping the home together and looking after my child. My mother and father were very supportive to me.

In the light of where we lived, I was initially worried about what people would have said, but the attitude in our loyalist working class community was that if you weren’t IRA, you were UVF.

Other people may have thought they were in there getting kept, but I just didn’t get into that argument. It wasn’t a holiday.

This TV drama would be different because what was happening then was political, you were on one side or the other and fighting a cause.

They’d never see themselves as ordinary criminals but political prisoners. What affected me in latter years was that although my husband came out of prison and worked for peace, moving things on politically, you’d hear people saying he was an upstart, that he had that past and was almost unclean.

My view is that if David hadn’t been in those circumstances, in that place, he wouldn’t have done the good that he did.

The second episode of Prisoners' Wives, a six-part drama series, is on BBC1 at 9pm tonight.

‘I don’t want my sons thinking going to jail is a way of life’

Lisa (30) lives in Lurgan with her four children, two sons and two daughters. She says:

I watched the first episode of Prisoners’ Wives, with my brother and family round. They like that kind of thing anyway. To be honest, I don’t think it’ll get people’s attention. If they’d done a real life documentary like the one on Hydebank or walked a day in a prisoner’s wife’s shoes, they’d get the full force of it.

I probably feel more embarrassed than anything else about my husband being in prison and I don’t want my kids to feel that going to prison is OK. I wouldn’t ever want my two sons thinking it’s a way of life and I haven’t told the children where he is. They think he’s working away from home.

When my husband was sentenced last summer I understood that he had to be punished but he was given 18 months, with nine months in and nine months on licence, and I feel that was over the top. When the judge passed sentence in court, I felt my body almost shut down. He was sent down for throwing a stone at the side of a car during the Twelfth and kicking it when he was drunk. Yet some people who’d thrown petrol bombs only got two months extra.

It was absolute stupidity but he handed himself in the next day and told the police what he’d done. But it doesn’t matter if you’re sorry. I believe they overreacted and made an example of everybody that July. It’s been bad. My husband had a job at the time and had started labouring.

He has four children and a wife. He could have been put on probation and told to clean up the mess. But he lost two jobs and now the taxpayers are paying for him to be in Magilligan and I’m on benefits.

Everything was destroyed and I had three of the children’s birthdays coming up, also our first anniversary. It was a bad month.

He’s back for two days next Monday and I’ll cook his favourite meal, steak. He won’t be allowed on licensed premises, though.

Attitudes haven’t changed and it’s so easy for people to judge. That’s why I’ve had to lie to the children so they don’t go through the hardship of other children not playing with them ‘because their father’s in prison’. I feel I’m carrying this burden.

I’m not a drinker and don’t do drugs but I can see how people become alcoholic, starting on a bottle of wine at night to blot it all out. In fact, I think the experience has made me tougher on the moral front.

At night time you miss the body on the other side of the bed. When my daughter gets home from school and I’ve done the teas and the washing, it’s just me.

You do get lonely and upset and angry towards them as they’ve left you. You also wonder when he comes back, will it be the same, will our relationship survive?

Belfast Telegraph


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