SOSOLO began in July of 2011. The group was started just after my (Natasha’s) loved one was given a federal prison sentence, and was taken away. Everything working up to that point such as years of house arrest, countless court dates etc., were very difficult to endure but for some reason, sentencing had the most devastating impact on my family. We were so emotional when they took our loved one away, and felt as though everyone involved, even the defense lawyer, had the attitude that their jobs were done (which technically they were).
As a result, we were left in this new world of the federal prison system, to navigate alone. I tried to seek out support and called around the city to see what existed, but I kept getting referrals to general family counseling, which was not what I was looking for. I wanted a peer-based support group, to speak with other loved ones to gather lived experiences/advice on how people coped, how to find forms for visiting etc. Since I couldn’t find anything like this, I decided to combine my professional skills as a social worker, with my identity as a loved one of someone in prison and start a support group – hence the birth of SOSOLO.
The news of the existence of SOSOLO has been spread via word of mouth thus far, particularly when visiting at prisons. It started with myself and one other person meeting at a coffee shop to chat, and then a few more members joined. The reason we have only recently begun spreading the word outside of word of mouth, is because coffee shops didn’t have the capacity to hold a larger group, nor was it conducive to privacy issues. We have however secured a meeting space, donated by a charitable, non-profit organization, which is where we currently meet twice a month.
Since we are not funded, we tend to incorporate a small potluck at these meetings, which includes tea, and finger food, however we are currently working on some fundraising initiatives. In between meetings, should any issues arise that we need to discuss, such as being stressed out over harassment during a visit, having a community assessment with a parole officer coming up, having a tough/emotional day being separated from a loved one, and as well, to share positive things that happen, we keep in touch with each other via email/phone call’s/text messaging.
Currently SOSOLO has ten members who meet up in person. We also have some more members who are both outside of the GTA but within Canada and members in the United States, with whom we keep in contact with/support via e-mail/telephone. Thus far, most of the members sign up on our meetup.com site (http://www.meetup.com/S-O-S-O-L-O/), and request to join the group that way. When people request to join, they are asked a few questions, such as: a brief introduction as to who the person wanting to join is, what the person hopes to gain from being a member, what the person hopes to offer the group, and an agreement to exercise respect for other members at all times, and keep all information discussed confidential. People who are local to the GTA, as well as anyone outside of the GTA, can join and connect with members this way.
We have not set a specific time period regarding member commitments to SOSOLO because we realize everyone is different and support is very individualized/personal; we only ask that members in the GTA do not miss more than five meetups per year. Some members are supporting people serving long-term sentences such as life, and others short-term sentences. Some people find they need a lot of support during the pre-sentence period, during sentencing and/or assessment when their loved one is first transferred to prison, but less support when s/he has been given their placement. Another person may want to continue with the group even after their loved one is released on parole/their sentence is complete. We try our best to meet people where they are at in their journeys.
Within SOSOLO, members provide one another with emotional support. We have created car pools to assist with being able to make visiting loved ones more accessible/affordable, we help navigate through forms/procedures such as general visiting forms and private family visiting forms – via providing hard copies/links to forms. We also offer information around what to expect when visiting, being interviewed by a parole officer etc. We offer court support for sentencing hearings, and accompaniment if a member wants someone to be present as support for community assessments, by parole officers. We also provide support via referrals/information sharing in applying to/accessing services, such as but not limited to: applying for social services, housing, basic needs such as food/clothes/emergency shelters, ways to save money on institutional/collect phone calls etc.
SOSOLO and members who are interested, participate in outreach, social justice, and public education related to experiences of loves ones supporting someone on the inside. This is done through various channels, such as writing articles, publishing zines, public speaking on panels/to agencies/within institutions, radio interviews, tabling at events, letter writing etc.; as well, we are connected with other organizations/groups as allies/partners. These types of activities are optional for members, as they determine their level of involvement based on interest/comfort level, and members have the option to remain anonymous when possible (ex. when contributing written work). All members are welcomed/encouraged to join committees, offer suggestions, feedback, and constructive criticism as to how SOSOLO can be improved to better meet everyone’s needs.
Because supporting a loved one in jail/prison can be very stressful and/or emotionally/socially/mentally/physically/spiritually draining, we are working on creating opportunities for members to be involved in spaces geared toward having fun/self-care. Some of our fundraising efforts this summer will go toward creating a few events for members, such as a summer outing for loved ones and our children/friends/family, a bowling night etc. We are currently negotiating with various businesses to be able to offer self-care workshops, whether that may be a yoga class, chair massages etc., and as well to have speakers, whom members would find interesting/helpful, come to present at meetings.
This is a synopsis about SOSOLO’s history as to who we are, and what we do. If anyone has any feedback and/or are interested in potentially joining the group, being a guest speaker, contributing to a zine, offering a donation, discussing a partnership, or inviting SOSOLO to speak at an event, please contact us at email@example.com.
Natasha & Sashalee