Indirect Victims: The Prisoners’ Wives Of Guwahati
The effects of incarceration reaches deep into the lives of the offenders’ families and communities. Their interests and needs are often overlooked and not given much attention by the criminal justice system. They represent a vulnerable section of the population.
I had conducted a study to explore the secondary victimization of the spouses and the stigma/labeling experienced by them for being associated with incarcerated convicts. It was part of my MPhil Programme in Criminology and was done under the guidance of Professor (Dr) K Jaishankar, Professor & Head, Department of Criminology, Raksha Shakti University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. The data was collected from the Central Prison Jail, Guwahati, Assam. In-depth interviews were conducted with 30 such spouses.
Secondary victimization as a concept looks into the way the experience of victimization is extended to another party such as the kin of primary victims, kin of offenders or a broader group who vicariously gets affected due to their association with the primary victim such as police officers, medical practitioners, victimologists and victim support providers.
The study focused on the spouses of the offenders and how their lives changed after the incarceration. It examined four key areas of victimization: financial, social, physical and psychological. As per the findings, financial impact was the greatest difficulty for the spouses. They had to take additional roles and responsibilities as the primary bread winner of the family was inside the prison. The cost of legal help, travel costs for prison visits and being sole provider for the family were some of the biggest challenges for these women. Many of them also had to start work in order to sustain themselves.
“There have been a lot of difficulties, financially. That’s why I could not send my children to school. All three of them are at home, just playing around. Even I had to start working as a daily wage labourer in order to sustain myself. I earn around 1000 rupees per month. I did not have to do this before. Earning money seemed a burden to me as earlier I did not have to go out to work,” said one of the spouses when asked about her financial difficulties.
The impact of victimization was also reflected in their physical health as well as changes in their lifestyles. They expressed signs of loss of appetite, decreased willingness to work and changes in their social activities.
“I have started to get ill frequently. In the last few months, I have had viral fever, cold and cough quite often. And the frequency has gone up after my husband’s incarceration. I also don’t take medicines regularly, so I don’t really get well. I get tired easily as well,” said a spouse when asked about her physical health.
The most surprising finding of the study was that none of the spouses reported feeling stigmatized or judged by others in the community as well as the correctional institution. This was because they had strong connections with their respective families as well as with the in-laws. This can be one of the reasons that led them to perceive positive social networks and relations. The families as a whole undertook multiple roles and responsibilities and these had long term implications for the families to stay connected.
“My relationship with my family and other relatives are still the same. They all know that my husband is in the jail and has not shown any kind of negativity towards me. Even in the prison, the staffs there are helpful and cooperative and I haven’t had any bad experience so far”, said one of the spouses when inquired about any change in her social life.
Psychologically, these women reported feeling anxious, as if their life is hopeless and meaningless and among other such emotional difficulties.
“To be honest, I haven’t been sleeping well ever since my husband went to the jail. I am constantly thinking about him. I feel hopeless sometimes but my in-laws are trying to get him back so I hope he comes back soon. My daughter is so young and I don’t want her to grow up without a father. She does not have a father figure now and this makes me really sad. I hope my husband comes back soon,” expressed one of the spouses.
As a population, these spouses are less visible than the primary victims of crime. These women were legally innocent but had to suffer only because they are married to incarcerated husbands. They led normal lives before their husbands’ incarceration disrupted their lives forever. The implications of that event are still discernible in their daily lives. Through the narratives of the spouses, I was able to unfold some of the difficulties these women faced. The experiences of these women were hidden and their every day challenges were not studied in the Indian context until now.
However, this study asks a perplexing question: Who is responsible for these women’s victimization? Is it the state or the offender himself? To be looking at just one agent or an individual taking the accountability for their sufferings will be an over-simplified view of their victimization. Rather what we need is a multi-stakeholder approach to make a positive difference to the lives of these women. Stakeholders such as policy makers, academicians, practitioners, researchers and the broader civil society can prove to be instrumental in providing a more nuanced approach to the complexity of the issue. In India, women related legislation so far only includes schemes and provisions for direct victims of crime. However in various countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, there are various national organizations that specifically support spouses and families of offenders. There is still a need to recognize the experiences of these spouses and include them within the realm of mainstream victim support and assistance policies.
(The author holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from LNJN National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science, New Delhi)