Barbara Allan: Founder, Prison Families Anonymous

0 Posted by - February 23, 2011 - Fortune 52

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 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

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  • Patdellatto February 24, 2011 - 12:53 pm Reply

    yes, barbara is truely one in a million- i am proud to say we are now friends fighting for the same causes and issues. She marches on to the beat of her drum, even in her 70’s and i am most fortunate to know her. Hat’s off to you Barbara! pat dellatto

  • Serena February 24, 2011 - 2:04 pm Reply

    Barbara Allan continues to be a tireless advocate, one who I feel very privileged to know as a friend and colleague. Her years of work dedicated to fighting the stigma of incarceration has and continues to be an inspiration to all me and so many others.

  • Colleen February 24, 2011 - 8:02 pm Reply

    Barbara Allan is a woman who brings hope to humanity. She is indefatigable in her support for justice and the people who are impacted by the prison system. Beyond this, she is one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever had the privilege to meet.

  • alynnjoyce February 24, 2011 - 10:11 pm Reply

    It’s been my good fortune to have known Barbara since 1967. We taught together for over 20 years and have remained close friends ever since. She “introduced” me to a world about which I had no idea. May she continue to do wonderful things for all people for many years to come

  • gail February 25, 2011 - 3:49 am Reply

    Barbara is truly amazing… she is one of the reasons why we now have contact visits with our spouses! She never gives up…and is always there when you need her!

    • Beverly Fortune February 25, 2011 - 8:07 am Reply

      Barbara is a very strong woman and we are all lucky to have an advocate and friend like her on Long Island.

  • Jessica February 25, 2011 - 6:21 pm Reply

    What can you say about a woman who does so much for nothing in return. The 1st time I met her she was the only one in the jail that even gave me the time of day. She helped me in so many ways. She helped me learn how to deal with my brother and she taught me how to not be on his elevator. She taught me how to live for me and not my brother. In some way she safed my life. I am so blessed to have met Barbara and will always be grateful for that day that I meat her. I will never be able to repay her. Thank you Barabara for being you. You touch so many people.

  • Dee Cee February 26, 2011 - 10:50 pm Reply

    Barbara and I met over 40 years ago at an AlAnon meeting and were drawn to each other. I have never met anyone with so much to give and so much compassion and empathy as Barbara. She works tirelessly for and with the families and for so many other criminal justice issues. God gave us a special person in Barbara and I will always be grateful that we continue to be friends. My involvement in criminal justice from 1972 to 2006 was because of her.

  • ballanpfa February 27, 2011 - 11:05 am Reply

    Thank you all. I am blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life.

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  • kathy January 10, 2012 - 10:04 pm Reply

    It has been my pleasure to know and work with Barbara for over 30 years–she is my inspiration and our Angel here on earth.

  • suffolkcountyattorney January 19, 2012 - 10:44 am Reply

    I cannot say more than what others have so wonderfully pointed out, incl Bev and the readers. However, no matter what side of the criminal law “debate” you are on, if any, families such as these are vics also. Please just remember we do have special crim courts, incl Drug Court, Mental Health and Vet’s Courts. They look at the underlying problem as causing the crime (e.g. you shoplifted, the crime charged, b/c needed money for alc). It is a super-intense, multi-disciplinary program that works like the tradl legal system may not (IF you are and appropriate candidate and do it). If we don’t have as many people as possible pointing this out, we cannot help as many as possible, so thanks to people like Barbara and her people.

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