Prisoners need hugs too, says wife

Colin Martin has never held his newborn son, and it has been nearly 10 months since he touched his wife's hand or hugged any of his other four children.

Martin is in custody at the Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre waiting for his upcoming trial on marijuana cultivation and trafficking charges. By the time of his trial in January, he will have been in jail more than a year.

Throughout his detention, Jennifer Cahill, Martin's wife and mother of their children, said the family has been forced to visit him through glass. B.C. Corrections policy prohibits remand inmates from having direct contact with visitors.

She argues that the policy causes needless stress for inmates and their families. In her husband's case, it leaves him depressed and anxious and torn between the desire to see his family and the realization he cannot visit them in a meaningful way.

"He is so worried it will be a worse effect, being able to see them and not touch them," she said. "It's like dangling a steak in front of a starving person.

"A big part of his identity is being a dad."

Cahill acknowledges that many people will not have much sympathy. Martin is charged with drug offences related to the discovery of a large marijuana grow operation at his family's Malakwa property last July.

He has been in trouble before as well, and has been charged with other drug offences going back to 1999. He is currently appealing a 2 ½-year sentence imposed for drug offences in 2007. It is also alleged he is involved in a significant cross-border drug smuggling ring. U.S. authorities want to extradite him to face charges there.

Regardless, she notes he has not yet been convicted of the most recent offences, yet he is not entitled to the same rights as when he was when he was serving time in another institution.

"We have been unable to have any kind of physical contact with Colin for the last 10 months," she said.

"I realize people are in jail, (because) they have broken the law . . . (but) all my husband's charges are marijuana related. He has no violence on his record.

"The heartache, the loneliness, being away so long," she said. People need people. We have hearts. We have souls. It's just not right."

Marnie Mayhew, a spokeswoman for B.C. Corrections, said the policy at KRCC is no different than at other provincial prisons and is in place in order to deal with security issues, such as contraband smuggling and the sharing of security information.

But she added the policy prohibiting contact between inmates and visitors is not universal and can be varied on a case-by-case basis, depending on an inmate's security classification. Sentenced inmates, for example, can be permitted to hug their visitors at the beginning and end of their visits.

Dawn Hrycun, executive director of the John Howard Society in Kamloops, said she has heard similar concerns from others as well. Many people are shocked to learn they cannot hug their spouse or child once that person goes behind bars.

"I understand the hardship of that. We always say, when he or she goes to jail, the family goes with them because everyone has to live by the (prison's) rules.

She added, however, prisons do what they must in order to safeguard security and protect everyone, including visitors.

Not everyone has a happy marriage. As well, not all inmates - especially those on remand who might be new to prison -accept their situation, causing stress that can lead to conflict when families see each other.

"It feels very harsh. People want to know why they can't give their husband a hug but the fact of the matter is you can't. Those are the rules."

"They are not doing it to be mean. They are doing it for the safety of the officers, the inmates and the visitors," she said.

David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the problem partly stems from the fact B.C.'s prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. As a result, guards must curtail contact between inmates and visitors in the name of security.

"These are people who have not even been convicted of a crime yet. They are just waiting for their trial. Instead of having more opportunity or access to families or exercise, they get less (access).

"It's a total paradox."

Cahill said she will lobby the B.C. government in the months ahead, hoping to have the policy changed. She doubts anything will happen quickly enough to benefit her family, but said she does not want other families to face similar frustration.

"It would ease some of the tensions in these facilities if inmates had something to look forward to each week. These guys really have nothing to behave for," she said.

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