WIMA is a Swahili word that means, straight, upright, erect or firm. It carries with it the allusion of remaining steadfast and unwavering. This attribute is the most coveted for pearl in the unfortunate event of spousal incarceration. It is intended that WIMA will be the bastion of every accessible woman whose spouse for whatever reason is incarcerated. Just as the question: “So, what is your story” is a must to answer, new inmates encounter in prison, “What kept you going?” is the resourceful question by new victims of spousal incarceration on encountering survivors of spousal incarceration.
The incarcerations of male spouses expose their female spouses to open adversity. The offender’s wife is ostracized and segregated by community members. She suffers loneliness, chronic poverty and abuse, and the burden of raising children singlehandedly. She is more likely to be disinherited form family property, face separation or even forced divorce. In her outcast state and without friends or other social ties, her plight will be less voiced than those closely involved with family and neighbors. Her efforts to seek legal redress for herself and her incarcerated spouse is more likely to be frustrated increasing her vulnerabilities.
Many female spouses at the point of incarceration of their male spouses face many hurdles that overwhelm them greatly reducing their quality of life and that of their children. Many are the times they lack where to turn to for counsel and comfort to face the trying times. Segregated and isolated, they suffer quietly and often succumb to depression and despair rendering them incapable of caring for themselves and their children. They covet fortitude. Desire something to keep them hanging in there.
The resilience of an inmate’s wife will largely depend on her access and degree of interaction with available support structures within the community. These include and are not limited to the following:
1) Support groups and organizations
Belonging to a group that has come together to address a common need of community members comes in handy as a bastion to a woman who is suddenly left alone by the imprisonment of her husband. Their presence around her is consoling. Group members who have known her and dealt with her are best placed to understand her circumstances and empathize with her. These may be in the form of self-help-groups or even Community based organizations (CBOs)
An inmate’s wife is better placed if she has access to a supportive organization inclined towards the support for inmate families. Advocacy for incarcerated families (AFIFA)’s Wives of Incarcerated Men Advocacy (WIMA) operating in Western parts of Kenya is one such outfit that enables these women to stand firm as pillars for both their imprisoned husbands and their children. WIMA ties together all these women in a warm embrace of psychological, socioeconomic and legal support from, well-wishers and both past and present victims of spousal incarceration.
It has correctly ben said in a family set up that, when we are surrounded by responsibilities, we forget to live for ourselves. In situations where children are present, we tend to devote our lives caring for them. We personally come low on our priority list. Such is the condition of the inmate’s spouse. It is well captured in this quote by James E. Faust; “The depth of the love of parents for their children cannot be measured. It is like no other relationship. It exceeds concern for itself. The love of a parent for a child is continuous and transcends heartbreak and disappointment” In matters carceral, the presence of children is a blessing in disguise. Whereas on one hand it may seem to put extra burden on the shoulders of the inmate’s wife, their presence on the other hand inspires to toil tirelessly for their sake. The children literally gives them reason to hang on. Lost in efforts for their survival, she is momentarily distracted from focusing and being weighed down by her plight. Children tend to crowd her life with their warmth and demands keeping her on her toes, estranged from isolation and loneliness.
3) Bridal family
There is a Burmese proverb that says; “In time of test, family is best” This saying is spot on. It reinforces the declaration by Maya Angelou; “I sustain myself with the love of family” It echoes Michael Fox; “Family is not an important thing. It is everything” This, according to Desmond Tutu, is the basis of positing, “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them” The family of the inmate’s wife is the only one that meets the criteria, “Blood is thicker than water” By implication, the bridal family is most likely to stand with her while the waves of adversity caused by spousal incarceration beat their pent up wrath upon her defenseless self. There is a surer bet that her family will stand with her. That who has the backing of family will surely weather the storm better.
4) Marital family
Among the Luhya community in western Kenya is the saying; “Your wife is not your relative, that is why you married her” This saying exposes the comparative covert perception that the marital family has between the inmate and the inmate’s wife. This family holds the notion that it is more directly connected to their kinsman in prison than to his wife outside. Its assertion hints on the thin line between love and hate. The strength of this sentiment determines just how supportive the marital family will be to the inmate’s wife. The degree of support to the inmate’s wife will in turn determine her resilience.
Any strained relationship between the marital family and the inmate’s wife can fester into her being disinherited form family property, her separation or even forced divorce. It dictates the difference between a surviving family and an obliterated one, at the point of inmate release from custody.
Government policies, systems and structures that are pro-inmate family are an indication of how much support is at the disposal of the inmate’s family. Such support structures include social assistance and keeping track of the condition and welfare of families left behind by inmates. The criminal-justice systems are known to interact with convicts at two main points; the point where they conflicted with the law and long after, when they are to be reintegrated back to society. Little is invested in the time in between. It is never remembered that they came from a home or a family. The plight of the family in their absence is never factored in, yet matters most for effective correction and reintegration.
The backbone of the family on spousal incarceration is the woman back at home. She and the children are not criminals, that is why they are not behind bars. They are as free as any other law abiding citizen. Their vulnerabilities are only significantly augmented and should be equally entitled to any available social assistance services.
It is written in the good book; James 1:27 “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the Fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the World” Incarceration of the male spouse creates a situation similar to that of the loss of a spouse through death. The inmate’s spouse is rendered a “widow” while his children, “orphans”. Even among Muslims, “The one who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting in the way of God”. Needless to say, the degree of commitment and fellowship one has with their faith community determines how buoyed they are in these times of adversity. The spiritual nourishment is at their disposal and easily keeps them going. This faith community is family. More often than not they will support and assist in meeting their needs, encourage them, visit with them, give them hope, and a cause to keep bearing the hard times.
The common Latin proverb; “Amicus certus in re incerta cenitur” (a friend in need is a friend indeed), traced back to the Third century Greek Philosopher Ennius, describes just how important it is to have someone who can stand with us in times of adversity. In most Patriarchal societies, incarceration is a very emotive topic laced with heavy stereotypes and prejudice. When it occurs, friends are a rarity. It is as isolating as it is confining. An inmate’s wife is only as fortified as the number of true friends she retains following the incarceration of her spouse. The more friends, the better. The holy writ declares; Proverbs 18:24 “A man that has friends must show himself friendly, and there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother”
All said and done, the fortress of an inmate’s wife, her chances of surviving the adverse effects of incarceration, lies in her keeping in the loop of as many support structures accessible to her as possible.