Imprisonment has a ripple effect well beyond the prisoners themselves. Here, an Auckland mother of two writes of the impact of  her ex-husband’s imprisonment on her and her children.


My ex-husband recently went to jail. We were married for almost 10 years before we separated late last year, and we have two children who we were successfully co-parenting before he went inside. He’s always been a loving and providing father, and the kids are devastated to be separated from him.

So the fact that he’s my ex-husband makes little difference to my situation. His imprisonment has had a profound impact on our lives.

I’ve become what social scientists might refer to as a spouse serving a “secondary sentence” — a phenomenon sometimes called “secondary prisonisation”, where loved ones are financially, socially, and emotionally affected by the incarceration of someone close to them.

Sadly, this is a situation that affects Māori and Pacific communities disproportionately — and I say “communities” because imprisonment has a ripple effect well beyond the prisoners themselves.

Although our children live with me, my ex-husband and I are on good terms. He was staunchly committed to supporting the kids, working full-time to make sure that I was able to care for them. This included keeping his name on the tenancy agreement that we’d entered into when we were still together.

It was 7 o’clock one wintry morning when the police turned up looking for him, and pulled the children out of bed in the process. It reminded me of the infamous dawn raids of the 1970s. The police presence triggered the concern of my Pākehā neighbours, who, rather than checking to see if I was all right, opted instead to let my landlord know that police were at “their” property.

When the property agent contacted my ex-husband to ask about the police being at my home, he was quite straightforward. He told her that he’d been charged with a non-violent, non-drug related offence, but that he didn’t live with us — and that his charges didn’t involve me in any way. He figured this would ease any concern about me and my children being able to remain tenants at the property.

But after he was taken into custody — and became uncontactable — I was informed that our tenancy hinged on my ex-husband’s employment (which had been terminated when he was arrested) and his residence at the property.

According to the property agent, my ex couldn’t technically remain on the tenancy agreement because of our relationship status and the fact that he was no longer actually living there — which seemed odd given that this is a private rental, not government housing.

And unfortunately, I was told, this meant that I’d need to go through a whole new application process — and it was up to the owner whether I’d be kept on as a sole tenant. I sensed this was unlikely, even though I could pay the rent on my own as I’d been doing for the last several months.

At the time, almost everything the property manager told me had sounded reasonable — apart from the bit about my ex and me needing to live together to fulfil our tenancy agreement.

But I was hardly in the best state to judge. I was already trying to process the feelings of grief for our family, and becoming aware of being steeped in whakamā — of feeling like we carried a taint that people didn’t want to be associated with. We had become just another brown family going to visit dad in jail. And on top of that was the weight of my children’s mamae when my youngest cried because the 30-minute once-a-week visits were simply not long enough.

Under the weight of that grief, I found myself buying into the falsehood of my own inferiority as a brown woman who was now dependent on the generosity of a Pākehā landowner. My defeated spirit seemed to shrug and say that surely I should be grateful that they would even allow us to continue paying them rent for our home.

After all, I told myself, how can a person remain on a tenancy agreement if they’re unemployed, or in jail?

But once the initial shock began to settle and I had a chance to examine my situation, I started to worry about the wider implications of my experience. Given the disproportionate numbers of Māori and Pasifika who get tangled up with law enforcement and corrections — on top of our low rates of home ownership — I’m unlikely to be the first or last woman in this situation.

Why should a private landlord have any say on whether I have to live with my ex-husband? How would that affect women who stand at the crossroads between secure housing and ending (often abusive) relationships?

According to the latest unemployment data released this month, women make up 10,000 of the 11,000 people left unemployed by Covid-19. That’s more than 90 percent. So a tenancy agreement conditional on a tenant’s employment or relationship status begins to look straight-up ridiculous, if not discriminatory.

So I called Tenancy Services.

They told me that if a tenant becomes unemployed during a fixed-term tenancy, the agreement can’t be terminated by a landlord without the tenant’s consent.

In fact, even my ex-husband’s incarceration couldn’t rule him out of remaining on the tenancy agreement.

While that resolved the situation for me, I was furious at my landlord’s cruelty and prejudice in trying to manipulate my children and me out of a home unjustly. And I couldn’t help feeling angry about the precarious and difficult barriers that Māori and Pasifika women regularly have to overcome.

What would have happened if I hadn’t contacted Tenancy Services? If I’d just accepted my fate and allowed myself and my children to be pushed out of our home?

How many of our women become further mired in circumstances beyond their control — trapped in precarious housing and employment — because they can’t get the support they need, or because the system is gamed against them?

If Māori and Pasifika families are, statistically speaking, disproportionately affected by prison, insecure housing, unemployment, and abusive relationships, then the combined weight of these barriers can throw victims into a world of rage and despair. How could we possibly have any hope of surviving in a system where the odds are stacked so heavily against us?

Of course, our situation doesn’t absolve my ex-husband’s personal responsibility for his own life choices. That’s for him to bear and make his peace with. And yet that doesn’t save me or my children from also bearing the consequences on his behalf.

I’ve felt the weight, in our society and communities, of the systematic ways that we chain women’s survival and safety to their relationships with men, regardless of whether those relationships are unfulfilling or even abusive.

It infuriates me when I think of discussions and commentary — even among women — that mocks the assumed “weakness” of women who stay in bad relationships, with little thought or care as to how difficult it is for them to leave.

Yet, at the same time, it’s single women and solo mothers who, if they want to enter into a relationship, are punished by the very social services that media conservatives regularly accuse the poor of trying to defraud.

It’s a cruel sort of joke that those very same conservatives often weigh up a tenant’s right to a warm place to live against the landlord’s right to accumulate wealth —  and then decide that it’s the landlord who needs more rights in this situation.

Māori and Pasifika women face some difficult challenges in life — as everybody does at some point. This isn’t news to me or anyone else. But, it’s certainly one thing to know about a problem, and another to live it, to feel crushed by it, and to try to overcome it.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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