Barbara Allan was a young mother with two children, when her husband, Gene, killed his father with a shotgun in their home.
When Gene committed the crime, he was only 29 years old. “He called me to tell me what happened,” Barbara recalls. As Gene spoke to Barbara, her father-in-law lay dying in the background. “I could hear him gurgling through the phone.”
Gene was an alcoholic with psychiatric problems, Barbara explained. He was severely beaten as a child, so he in turn abused Barbara. “He was sick,” she says, but “he was a diamond in the rough.”
Gene was arrested and remanded to the Nassau County Jail, which did not allow family visits. “He went to jail instead of a hospital for psychiatric problems,” Barbara says. At that time, the Nassau County Jail had rules that prevented children from visiting their parents who were behind bars. In her family’s case, Barbara says, “They didn’t know they had a father.” She’d let Gene know what time to look out his cell window so he could see her walk by with their two young daughters in a double-stroller. This routine was the Allan family’s get-together. It was a tough time for Barbara but she did not divorce Gene. She decided to keep her marriage together even though they were apart.
Gene pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two and a half to seven and a half years. He spent the first few months incarcerated in Sing Sing, which was then the only prison in New York that allowed contact visits between parents and their children.
Once a month Barbara took her kids to Sing Sing. “I thought they had to know they had a father,” she says. But then Gene got transferred to Green Haven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, which didn’t allow contact visits. She stopped taking her daughters because she did not want them to see their father through a glass partition.
During this stressful time, Barbara continued working as an elementary school teacher in the Deer Park School District. Her parents were supportive, she says, but she was dealing with a husband in jail and raising two children by herself. “I was doing my time on the outside,” she recalls. “I was so frightened and alone, and I gravitated to the families in the [prison] waiting room.”
During her husband’s incarceration, Barbara attended Al-Anon meetings, but the turning point in her life came when she contacted The Fortune Society, a nonprofit advocacy organization who helps those who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated become positive, contributing members of society.
Through her involvement with The Fortune Society, word spread about the network Barbara was creating with the families. Eventually she formed Prison Families Anonymous (PFA) as a non-profit that provides a safe, non-judgmental place where those in similar situations can connect with one another. “That was the beginning of my recovery,” she says.
Barbara became known throughout the prison, law enforcement and judicial communities as a knowledgeable resource and she continues to be sought out as a speaker at civic, religious, educational and social organizations helping people to understand the impact incarceration can have on families.
Barbara was involved with anything that had to do with the criminal justice system. Even after Gene’s release, their subsequent divorce and his death, she has continued to advocate for the families. “I’m very nurturing,” she says.
She has helped other families start PFA chapters in other states, including groups for children, which were originally formed at her own daughter’s request.
Barbara believes that some people belong in prison, but that others should be in treatment centers. “I don’t embrace and like all of these people, some should not be let back on the street,” she says, “but there are some who made a wrong choice.”
Barbara is very sensitive when dealing with the crime victims. “We don’t forget about the victims,” she says emphatically.
The newest member of Barbara’s PFA group is a mother whose son just pleaded guilty to homicide. Barbara is there to comfort her and answer the questions that she must face with a loved one in prison: When and how can I visit? Can I bring anything? What will I say if my neighbors or friends ask me where he is? How can I hold my head up if the story was in the newspapers?
Only someone who has lived through the experience can truly share the answers.
After Barbara, who is now in her mid-70’s, retired from teaching, she moved to Florida, but she couldn’t stop advocating for others. While there, she was named volunteer of the year by a domestic violence agency in Broward County, was a victim’s advocate for the Lauderhill Police Department, and served on the advisory board of a maximum security prison for women. But Barbara came back to her roots on Long Island and her friends in the PFA. “I can’t play Mah Jong,” she says, “that’s not who I am.”
As we talked about the many experiences and people that she’s met through the PFA, she had a visitor. John (not his real name) had stopped by to pick up a copy of the DVD movie The Visitors that would be shown that night at the PFA meeting. He was recently released from prison after serving 20 years for manslaughter. His mother has been faithfully attending PFA meetings the entire time her son was incarcerated and continues to attend them. “When he got out, he started coming to the meetings, too,” Barbara says proudly.
With no future plans of retiring, Barbara continues to run the PFA support group twice a month in Deer Park, and is just as active in the group as she was decades ago. “Three people have been with my group for over 20 years,” she says. “We share our experiences and give each other strength and hope. Our families gravitate towards one another.”
Barbara, who sits on the board of directors of New Yorkers for Alternatives Against the Death Penalty, has even found a way to continue to advocate for prison reform from her grave. “If I get murdered,” she says, “I don’t want that person to get the death penalty.”
Leaving no stone unturned in her quest to support these fractured families. Barbara says, “This happened to me. I didn’t do anything wrong. It could have been you.”
For more information go to www.pfa-li.com. The PFA Support Group meets at 7:30 pm on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of every month at the Community Presbyterian Church, 1843 Deer Park Ave., Deer Park. For more information call Barbara at 631-943-0441 or e-mail email@example.com
If you know a super woman who deserves good Fortune—and a profile—e-mail your nominations to Beverly at firstname.lastname@example.org.