Prisoner’s girlfriend finds support through shared experiences

What do you do when your spouse is in prison? You reach out to people who can relate to your situation.

By Sarah MacMillan

Vanessa Cormier's group for those with a loved one in prison meets in Halifax every month, often over coffee. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)
Vanessa Cormier’s group for those with a loved one in prison meets in Halifax every month, often over coffee. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)

When Vanessa Cormier’s boyfriend was sentenced to four years in prison for a white-collar crime, she didn’t feel like she had any support. She had to move back home to New Brunswick from Houston, TX, where she and her boyfriend, Stephen, had been living.

“Coming back home and having to tell my friends and family what happened and what he did was just horrible,” says Cormier. “It was very hard for the first couple of months. I was completely by myself. It took a lot for my friends and family to talk to me again.”

Two years later, Cormier is now on good terms with them. Yet, she says that they don’t understand what she’s going through and they’re not always sympathetic when she’s upset.

“I can’t really talk to my friends about it. They’re not really supportive because I am waiting, and they don’t like that,” says Cormier. “They put the blame on me if I say I’m feeling lonely or I’m feeling sad today. They’re kind of like, ‘well, it’s kind of your fault, you know, you’re sticking by him.’”

Cormier is committed to staying by Stephen’s side throughout his four-year sentence. He is incarcerated at FCI Beaumont Medium, a medium security prison located in Beaumont, TX.

Finding support

Nearly two years ago, while working in a call centre, Cormier overheard a co-worker saying she was writing a letter to her husband. Cormier, who regularly writes to Stephen, was intrigued. She explains that since not many people send letters anymore, she was interested as to why this woman, like her, was communicating by paper and pen.

Cormier discovered that they were in a similar situation. Her co-worker was writing to her incarcerated husband.

Her co-worker knew someone else whose partner was in prison. Pretty soon, the three women were meeting weekly to discuss their shared experiences and find support.

What started as three women bonding over shared experiences has grown to a group of 15 people, mostly women, from New Brunswick, Ontario and the Halifax area.

Cormier says the group is welcoming to newcomers. However she says that some members are concerned about privacy, and are hesitant about creating a group in an online forum like Facebook. The group has grown by word of mouth.

Cormier stresses the benefit of having people to talk to “who understand exactly what you’re going through.”

She travels to Halifax monthly to meet up with the group members from the Halifax area. Meetings are informal, and often held in a coffee shop or even a park, and centre on a main topic.

“It can be, somebody’s been moved to another prison, or is going to another prison, and they want to know the rules, or if somebody else is able to visit so they can carpool and stuff. And sometimes we’ll talk about what to write in letters because we’re running out of ideas.”

Cormier says the group has offered her the support her friends and family are not able to.

If somebody else has been or has gone through the same thing, it’s nice to know these things. It makes us feel better,” says Cormier.

The biggest struggles

Cormier says that for her, the greatest struggle that she faces daily is experiencing judgment from others.

Cormier has not seen Stephen since he was incarcerated. She says she was recently granted approval to visit, but says the approval process took a long time as she is Canadian, and they aren’t married.

Cormier, a preschool teacher, has not yet been able to take time off work to make the trip to Texas.

Cormier talks to Stephen on the phone about once a week and they send frequent letters. However, Cormier says Stephen lost his phone privileges for a year as a result of fighting.

She says he was finally able to call her in January.

“The first time that he called again, that took me like a week to stop crying,” says Cormier.

Cormier says some of the women she has talked to have said that they experience intense emotion after visiting their partner, and that the emotional highs and lows can be very disruptive to their lives.

She says for some members of her group, having a partner in prison can be especially difficult if they have children together.

“A lot of times it’s what to say to (the) kids because he did something wrong, but then you don’t want them to think that he’s a bad guy. So it’s kind of like, they don’t know what to say or what not to say,” says Cormier.

Moving forward

Cormier says her experiences over the past two years have taught her to be more compassionate with others and appreciative for what she has.

“I appreciate every little thing in life, whether it be hanging out with a friend that I haven’t seen in a while, or you know, a clean house, or a home to come to, just anything.”

Cormier says Stephen will stay with his brother in Seattle once he is released in 2016. She hopes that he will join her in Canada as soon as he is legally permitted to do so.