I interviewed Barbara Allen at the International Prisoners Family Conference. She is the founder of Prison Families Anonymous and has been supporting prisoners’ families for over 50 years. You can listen to her story here.
(Minor edits for readability)
Julia: Barbara was one of the many key speakers on the first day of the International Prisoners Family Conference. Barbara, thanks for joining me.
Barbara Allan: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor.
Julia: Well, I wanted to see if you could tell us a little bit about your organization, and what you spoke about yesterday.
Barbara Allan: My organization, Prison Families, is Prison Families Anonymous. I’d like to explain that, because we chose to put anonymous after our name NOT because we’re a 12-step organization, like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, but because when people come to a support group for families of prisoners, there’s so much stigma attached. They’re so worried, “Oh my goodness. What if somebody sees me walk into that room?” So, we decided to promise our families anonymity. We told them, “Everything you say here stays here,” and it seemed to satisfy a need.
Barbara Allan: We became incorporated in 1974, though we were going before that. Things were a little bit different back then. But now I feel that maybe it’s time to take that anonymous off of our name, because we have no reason to feel stigmatized or ashamed or embarrassed. Sometimes I’m Prison Families, and sometimes I’m Prison Families Anonymous. But we still promise people their anonymity. If they choose to be anonymous, that’s their choice. Never ask what the crime was, because we don’t care. That’s not our business. We care about the person, the person who comes to our support, the family member, and we care about the person who’s incarcerated, because they’re part of the family. We cannot dismiss them.
Julia: What did you talk to everybody about last night?
Barbara Allan: Last night, I think I tried to be funny.
Julia: You were.
Barbara Allan: I was told that I had to make people laugh. Because I tell you, it’s a very serious business that we’re in. I mean, we’re dealing with life and death issues. We’re dealing with loved ones who are years and years in solitary confinement. We’re dealing with people who are on Death Row in the states that still have the death penalty. With people who are doing so much time, and the families are so fearful, especially the parents, that they might not be here by the time their loved ones come out of prison. And they say, “Be funny, Barbara. We need that. We need that humor to survive.”
Barbara Allan: I wrote a book. It’s called Doing Our Time on the Outside, and in it I have a chapter called Gallows Humor. People walk into a support group meeting, and they’re in pain and they’re hurting and they’re scared, and they don’t know who those people are going to be in that room. And they hear laughter, and they think they’re in the wrong place. I’ll tell my families, “I promise. I can’t promise you much of anything else, but I can promise you you’re gonna be laughing with us one day, also.” Basically, we’re just a group of moms, wives, children, sisters, brothers, who love someone who’s incarcerated. And then when the person comes home, as I said, they come to our meetings. They’re part of our group.
Julia: It’s part of the family.
Barbara Allan: That’s right. They’re not clients. They’re families. I always say, “Well, one of my families is coming. We’re going to a movie.” Because we do that, too. People think I have a very large, extended family. I’m an only child. But that’s who we are. I often say, because my husband was arrested in 1966 in New York State, that I can be the historian of the New York State criminal justice system. I’ve seen the pendulum go from one end to the other end, and as I said last night, I’ve seen it stand still, where nothing changed.
Barbara Allan: What changed in the many, many years that I’ve been involved was the people. Not that the people themselves changed, but they’re there. They show themselves. They’re out here. I’m at the conference in Texas, and all these wonderful, wonderful people, who have someone they love … And as I said last night, I don’t care where you’re from. This is an international conference. People from all over the world come. I don’t care what color you are. I don’t care what gender you are. I don’t care what your relationship is to the person. When you get that phone call that someone you love has been arrested, we all get that very, very same feeling in our gut, and the pain. And, “What do I do now? Who do I contact? How am I gonna get a lawyer? What’s gonna happen to my children? Where is he going?” We all have those questions, and Prison Families Anonymous tries to answer those questions.
Barbara Allan: We’ve had programs in county jails. It’s one of the things I’m very proud of. I’m proud of a lot of things, as I am in my octogenarian years. But one thing … For many years we sat in the lobby of our county jail. Not that we were welcome by everyone, but we worked our way in. We had volunteers. A lot of the volunteers were families. I’m a retired schoolteacher. Some of my colleagues who taught kindergarten and first grade sat there, and what we tried to do was reach out to the people coming to visit. Give them a hug, tell them, “You’re not alone. We know what you’re going through.” We used to serve cookies and candy.
Barbara Allan: And the children. We had coloring books, we had drawing paper, and of course, books to read. I’m a schoolteacher. And what we did, we would paste the pictures that the children drew or colored around the walls of the visiting area. The officers hated it. But we wanted to make it as homey as it could be. It was a trailer. It was just one of the worst places to have to go, an old trailer that leaked. We managed to get a soda machine in. A clock. Something as simple as a clock, so people would know how long they’re sitting there waiting for their visit. And a telephone booth, because it was before there were cell phones. You know. The little things you can do, to make somebody’s life a little better. That’s a program I’m extremely proud of, and I would do it any time I was given an open invitation.
Julia: Yeah. Whatever anybody says, there’s nothing that a few people that really care, that get together, that want to make change, that they can make that change. You made things better for those people that you helped. You being there, and your group and other volunteers, being there to support those families is something that’s really important, because you made them feel better. And so, they could go on with their lives while they were dealing with having somebody incarcerated.
Barbara Allan: That’s right. And we helped them navigate the system, because you start out in the county jail. Many people didn’t know the difference between a jail and a prison.
Barbara Allan: And the language, and the legalese. And so, I put together a handbook for the families, and in the back was a glossary of terms with the explanations. A lot of people who go into the county jails are going to wind up in the, we call it “upstate,” prison. Because in New York, most of the prisons are up near the Canadian border, and so we had a map of all the prisons before the computer. Well, now you can just print it out, but we had a map there. We would tell them how to get information about the prisons, when we were funded.
Barbara Allan: We’re not funded now. We lost all our funding, but we’re still going on. But we had an office staff, and we had … Well, I guess we were the Google of the prison system back then, because we’d get all the visiting regulations. Each prison in New York State is autonomous, so you can’t say, “Well, if you’re going to prison in New York State, this is what they can bring in packages, and this is the visiting hours.” No. So, we kept a file of every prison in New York State, and thank goodness it’s not necessary anymore. I guess there’s something good to be said for technology.
Julia: That’s right. And so, in your book, a lot of the things that you’re talking about, that you put together for families that came to your group … What information do you have in your book that would be helpful?
Barbara Allan: Well, I talk about a lot of things that we did. We started a support group for children, because my daughter came too … Those of us who were in our Group, we didn’t even call it the board of directors. We called it the Group Council, because we wanted to be families, not professionals. But, so when we had the Group Council meetings, it was usually at my house. The people who came, mostly moms or wives, the wives would bring their children and they’d play with my children.
Barbara Allan: So, one day we get a note from my daughter and one of the other young children. I guess they were maybe 12 at the time, the older ones, and said they wanted a group like the grownups had. We immediately started a support group for the children. We hired somebody. At that time we had some funding, and we didn’t want to leave our children to the amateurs, you know? We’re peer support, but the children, we wanted to have someone professional. We hired someone to work with the children.
Julia: What type of person? Because this might help other groups.
Barbara Allan: Okay, I’ll tell you what kind of a person. He worked at the college with children who were at-risk children, and he volunteered at the jail. And years later, his brother wound up on Death Row. But we had, at the time, no idea. He was not a prison family when we first met him, but he was very sensitive to the needs of children. He volunteered at the college.
Barbara Allan: So, what we did, it wasn’t that we sat the children down and said, “Now we’re gonna have a meeting.” We took them to the zoo. We took them to the movies. We took them skating. We did a trip to the Amish Country in Pennsylvania. The children got to know each other, and then they opened up and spoke. It wasn’t threatening to them. It wasn’t something like, “I don’t want to go to therapy.” It was, “Ooh, we’re gonna go and we’re gonna have fun.” And that group … Well, my daughter, my older daughter is, can I say a teenager? She’s gonna be 54, and she and one of the children she met at the group are still best friends.
Barbara Allan: It’s that kind of feelings that we tried to give to our kids, and we did the same with couples. We used to go into a work release facility with our couples group. We would bring the wives in to meet with their husbands, and when the first person got released form work release … And these are people who did big time upstate, some of them, so this was a gradual reintroduction to society … When the first person was released, he could not go back into the jail to participate in the group. They actually let the men come out to our office to meet with their wives. See, this was work release, so it was a little less stringent.
Barbara Allan: But that group was so successful. The only professional there was me, and I’m a professional first grade schoolteacher. But we sat around, and they just talked to one another. One man said he was going through a difficult situation, and somebody else could recognize that: “I have those feelings. We have those feelings.” And the only rules we had, that there was to be no violence in the couples. You know, when they left our room, they had to be civil to each other. If there was any anger, bring it to us. Don’t bring it to each other. And one couple got divorced, but it was for the right reasons. Because I never say, you know, “Stay in the marriage.” If you’re going to leave, make yours for the right reasons. That’s in my book.
Barbara Allan: And just how we day to day met each other, at the jails and the prisons, and the networking. Do a lot of networking. Now I work with two reentry task forces. One of the reentry task forces, I work with them in their case conferencing. So when somebody is coming out of prison, I get their information and their family’s information, and we have a letter that we send to the families. Our backbone, though, who we are and what we are, is support groups. I have two support groups in two different counties, and we send the families the information, telling them that now that the person is coming home, there may be difficulties. There may be other sets of problems, and we would be there to support them. That was a big thing, that the county and the parole recognized us, and allowed us to do this.
Julia: Reentry for the family is something that there’s not a lot written about, and there’s not a lot of programs for it. So, how do you prepare the families for the loved one that’s coming home?
Barbara Allan: We share information, strength, and hope. We have families who have been with us for over 30 years. I mean, we’re an old group, and we have a lot of old people in it. But we have many families whose loved ones have been away 25, 30, 35 years, and the families stay with us. There’s no end date. You stay as long as you need to.
Barbara Allan: And as people come home, aside from the fact that the men and women who come home come to our support groups, the families are there to show other families the successes and the failures. You know, “God, I wish I didn’t do that.” “He went away, he was 20. He’s home now, he’s 45, and I still … I want to know where you are, what time you’re coming home, and I want you to clean your room.” You know? So, by hearing our experience, strength, and hope, we don’t lecture. We don’t tell people what to do.
Barbara Allan: But those of us who have been through it … When my husband came home, I had been alone with my children not that long. He didn’t do much time, despite the crime. He did his time on the installment plan. But I had taken over with my children. We had dinner, if we wanted to, in front of the TV. I was a working mom, and they were growing up. And he came home, and, “Oh, we’re gonna have dinner together at the table.” You know, who is this person? I took over all the responsibility. I had to. No choice. I wrote out all the checks. And he came home, and he wanted to take over again. No. Now it’s my job.
Barbara Allan: But, you know. Each situation is different. Each person is different, and we tried to look at each family as an individual entity, in what you’re going to experience. And it’s hard, not only for long-termism, and we have many of those, but what we call frequent fliers. Drugs, the great equalizer. But we have young people who start out young people, going in and out because of the drugs. For their families, it becomes very, very frustrating, and they get angry and they go through the phases. “I never want to see him again,” and, “I can’t wait for him to come home.” And sometimes we feel a person maybe should not go home to their family. Maybe they need something to help them adapt and adjust. So, we look at each person differently.
Barbara Allan: We’re a 24-hour, seven day a week telephone. I got a call yesterday from a mom whose son just came home, and she was sitting in the parking lot at parole. He had to report to parole. And she was so worried, because instead of going to the shelter that DSS wanted to send him to the day he came home, he stayed with his mom, and then was going to parole the next day. They were so frightened of, “We’re gonna violate him because he stayed with his mother.” Of course, they’re not. They didn’t. But I have that phone number. If anything, I’ll call parole. You know? So, you support each other every way, in however you can. Whatever someone needs, we always try to … We started the children’s group because a child asked for it.
Barbara Allan: The couples group. I’ll tell you how we started that couples group, as I think of it. One of the wives was going to a therapist. Her husband was on work release, getting ready to come home. She was in therapy, and she said to the therapist, “I can’t trust him.” And the therapist says, “Well, you have to trust him.” And I got blown away. The man went to prison. He did a lot of things to her. I can understand why you don’t trust him. That’s when we decided, “Well, maybe everyone in the therapeutic community … Not everyone exactly knows who we are, so let’s do it ourselves.”
Julia: Yeah, I know in your book that you have a chapter on how to start your own support group. If you can give us a few pointers?
Barbara Allan: Yes. I have, we called it our new group packet before the book and before the Internet. Because we do have a website. By the way, our website was started by someone who did 22 years in prison. He’s our webmaster. But I started with what we give out at conferences and meetings, about who we are and what we are. I say there when someone you love gets arrested, the feelings you have. “Do I call an attorney?” And so on. Then I have an opening and a closing, and after all these years, you would think I would remember it, wouldn’t you? For years I was doing this every Friday night, for maybe 20 years.
Julia: Well, we’ll have to get the book.
Barbara Allan: Yeah, it’s in there. But there’s an opening and a closing, and we tell people at the end that, “Though you may not like us all, you’ll love us the same way we already love you. Speak to each other, and reason things out, but let there be no gossip or criticism of one another.” As I said, we don’t care what the crime is. It doesn’t matter to us.
Barbara Allan: We have in there 10 tips for families. That was originated at the conference here. Problems of children, that children might face. I have a chapter in the book about women in prison, because we can’t forget the women. That’s a growing prison population. They leave children behind. And what we do a lot of? We network. We network with anybody and everybody who has anything to do with prisons. That’s how I got involved with the reentry task force. I go to the jails. Now we’ve started a group called the Nassau County Jail Advocacy. We want an oversight committee of civilians to go into the jails, so we’re working with the legislature on that.
Barbara Allan: Every single Christmas now, for probably 30 years, we have been in two county jails with our families as volunteers, giving toys out to the children who visit. We tell the younger children that the toys were sent down by their daddy or their mommy, or whoever they’re going to visit. We have been doing that forever, and I know we’re going to be doing it again this year. But now, we’re doing it jointly with an organization that works with women in prison.
Barbara Allan: I met this young woman when she was in a women’s prison. Went away, I think at 19. Did five years. She’s been out now almost 20 years. She’s a shining star as executive director of her program called Women Care, working with women and children. So, we are going to connect and do the toys together, because I think it’s just a perfect fit.
Julia: Oh, yeah. The more groups and the more people that can work together, the bigger effect we can have.
Barbara Allan: That’s right. That’s right. And that’s always been very important, because I’m not a fundraiser. I have no idea how to get money. We’ve gone through phases where we had the office fully staffed, outreach workers in the jail that we actually paid. And right now, we pass a basket. We have a GoFundMe page. None of us get paid. I don’t get a dime. I never did. Because as a schoolteacher, I had my salary, and then when I retired, I had a pension and got Social Security. But we need other people and other groups.
Julia: One of the questions that I always get asked, for people that are in their area, and don’t have a support group and they want to start their own group is, how do they find other people?
Barbara Allan: First of all, if you go to a jail, lots and lots of people are there. That’s how I started my support group. I felt so alone, and so frightened, and so disconnected. But I went into that jail, and I’m waiting, and there are people next to me waiting also. I could see that they were hurting too, and I’d go over and say, “How are you?” And just kind of the bonding. That’s really how we started. There was a friend of mine whose husband … I met her in Al-Anon, whose husband was doing federal time. She said, “Why don’t we start a group like Al-Anon?” We said okay, and then we met the people inside the visiting rooms.
Barbara Allan: There’s a story in my book about one of our very, very first couples. They’re both deceased now, but their son was in for a terrible, terrible crime. His wife got murdered, and it was conspiracy to murder his wife, so there were three children left without a parent. One was in prison, and one was deceased. This elderly couple came from their home in Brooklyn, to Long Island, so the children could stay in their school. They were visiting their son the same time I was visiting my husband, and my husband said to me, “Barbara, go talk to them.” That was before we even had the support group, but he said, “Go talk to them. The father is very upset.” The son thought his father might actually commit suicide, because he was so upset. They were one of my very, very first prison families, til the day they died.
Barbara Allan: As a matter of fact, when I wrote my book, I wanted to include their story. I knew that their older son had moved to Georgia … Atlanta, Georgia, and I know he became an attorney. I found him, and I called him and I reintroduced myself, and I told him I would like to include that story in my book, and we had the nicest chat. It’s all in my book. But, that’s how. Just by reaching out. To understand that you’re in pain, and so is the person next to you. And if they reject you, okay. Talk to the next person.
Barbara Allan: Then my husband would tell people, and then other people who were in prison would tell people. I found the Fortune Society in New York City, which was an organization, just starting at the time, working with formerly incarcerated people. The founder is a press agent, so he would get some publicity. When people called them about a loved one incarcerated, they would say, “Oh, call Barbara,” and give my phone number. And then it started just growing by itself. No formula. Just reaching out to people.
Julia: Just passion and caring. What a great legacy.
Barbara Allan: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah.
Barbara Allan: My husband’s passed away 20 years now.
Julia: And you’re still committed to the cause to helping others.
Barbara Allan: Yeah. Oh, yeah. These are my families. And when I think, “Oh, God. I’m not gonna do this one more day … ” I do have very bad dreams every single night, and I say, “Maybe I should retire.” I have a condo in Florida, which I rent out, which helps pay my bills. I could move down there. Sell my place up north. And then I get a phone call. “Well, yesterday at the conference … ” And this is the truth. One of my families lives in New York. Her cousin lives in California, and has a child in prison in California. My family, Shirley, tells her cousin I was at an international conference. Her cousin messaged me. She lives in San Bernardino, California. Do I know anybody who might be able to help her and her son? I mean, and how can I stop? How can I retire?
Julia: Well, it’s a labor of love.
Barbara Allan: Yeah. Yeah. It is.
Julia: And you can still go down to Florida in the winter.
Barbara Allan: I don’t now. My daughter lives there, my older daughter would love me to go to Florida. But, no. My people are in New York. My work is in New York.
Julia: You can take a vacation.
Barbara Allan: Yeah. I do sometimes, for a week or so. But anyway, when you meet the people, that’s what hooks you.
Julia: Yeah, they grab your heart.
Barbara Allan: Yeah. And even the person who’s incarcerated. We say, “No one is an act they commit,” and we work with organizations. Like in New York, we have an organization called RAP, Release Aging People from prison. I’m going to be speaking at a conference in New York, the state conference for the National Alliance of Mental Illness. I’ll be going there in two weeks, just to keep letting people know, “Look. Here we are.” You know?
Julia: Yeah, “We’re here.”
Barbara Allan: It’s not them and us.
Barbara Allan: That’s another thing, to break down that barrier. That’s who I am.
Julia: Well, thank you very much.
Barbara Allan: Thank you for listening.
Julia: Oh, anytime. Anytime.
Barbara Allan: Thank you.
You can obtain more information about Prison Families and Barbara’s book: “Doing Time on the Outside” at http://www.pfa-li.com/
You can learn more about Barbara at https://www.newsday.com/long-island/crime/barbara-allan-prison-families-anonymous-1.21327876