Whanau Transport service encourages supportive family environment for prisoners

When people have been incarcerated, especially for a long time, maintaining family relationships can be challenging. Aside from the obvious physical separation from family members, difficulties with scheduling and transport arrangements often mean that prisoners and their families don’t see each other often.

Lack of contact can contribute to the diminishing of family relationships, and upon release, re-establishing relationships can be extremely challenging. Without the support of their families, re-entering society can be even more difficult for released prisoners, which can increase their likelihood of re-offending. , 

A lack of transport is a common issue faced by whanau of prisoners, and not having access to a vehicle often means visits are infrequent, if ever. PARS (People At Risk Solutions) are providing an answer, ensuring whanau of prisoners are able to see their loved ones more often. Through their Whanau Transport service, volunteers contribute their time and vehicles to drive families and whanau to see loved ones in prison.

Helping keep families together for over thirty years

Peggy Snowden has been volunteering with PARS for over thirty years, having previously taught in primary and intermediate schools in Otara, and seen the effect having a family member incarcerated had on children. "It places such a stress on all the family, both those on the inside, and out," she says.

Based in Auckland, Peggy predominantly transports whanau of prisoners to Auckland Prison but also drives families to Mt Eden Corrections Facility, Spring Hill Corrections Facility, and the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility, on occasion. On average, she volunteers once a month, as visits vary dependent on whanau needs and availability.

"I believe that returning people who have been incarcerated to a supportive family environment is the best help on offer," she says. "Maintaining relationships offers provision for prisoners to come out of custody into a supportive environment, which helps them move forward with their lives productively."

Peggy's teaching background helped her interact with whanau during their drives in a way that would help keep them as relaxed and comfortable as possible. "It's a matter of being accepting and friendly," she says. "People make mistakes, and their families suffer in many ways. Anything that helps to maintain family relationships will help people to smoothly re-enter society when they are released."

Driving out of his way to make a difference

A newer addition to the PARS volunteer group, Jeremy Hall has recently started transporting whanau from Whangarei, Northland. He saw an article in his local paper about PARS' services, and was keen to get involved. Jeremy has only taken a family to the Northland Region Corrections Facility once, so far, but found their matter-of-fact approach to their family situation quite inspiring.

Research has shown that allowing children to spend time with incarcerated family members reduces the likelihood of intergenerational offending, so for families with young children, this is particularly important. 

Jeremy took an older couple and their four-old granddaughter to visit an inmate at Ngawha - their son and father. He had recently completed a course while in prison, and they were attending his graduation ceremony, a day of great pride and achievement.

"They hadn't seen each other for a year," says Jeremy. "They were surprisingly accepting of this, but I found it sad knowing the family hadn't been together for so long, simply because they didn't have access to a car."

Jeremy lives in Kerikeri, and urges more Whangarei residents to get involved, as the drive from the city takes approximately half the time than from Kerikeri. He finds it saddening and frustrating that many prisons are situated in remote areas, but are not equipped with public transport systems to support families.

"It makes visiting so much harder," he says. "Whangarei's larger population means that there are more families from the area that need to see their loved ones in Ngawha. I'm happy to drive in, collect them and drive out to the prison, because I know how beneficial it is for families, but inadequate transport is putting a burden on family relationships. It causes innocent families to become a part of the sentence"

Finding strength in family relationships

The Whanau Transport service allows families to spend time together and maintain their bonds. In 2014 alone, PARS assisted over 300 children to visit family members in prison all around the country. When someone is incarcerated, their family serves time too, and supporting them to be together reduces the chance of re-offending  when released. It offers under-resourced families an experience that many would take for granted, yet is so valuable.

Jeremy found his experience as a Whanau Transport volunteer extremely rewarding. "It was an interesting learning experience for me, and I enjoyed their company hugely," he says. "After the visit, they were just buzzing, and were so positive and accepting."

"During the drive, the incarcerated man's daughter announced cheerfully, that she "loves her Daddy", even though she hadn't seen him in a year," says Jeremy. "It was a really rich experience for them, and I'm glad I could bring them together."