Living with the pains of confinement The experiences of children with parents in prison in Northern Ireland

Una Convery and Linda Moore


Research across jurisdictions has demonstrated the significant, overwhelmingly negative impact of imprisonment for prisoners’ families and for children in particular (MOJ, 2007; Murray, 2007; Scharff Smith and Gampell, 2011). Children with parents in prison experience disproportionate levels of physical and mental ill-health, poorer education and employment prospects, and reduced standards of living (Codd, 2008; Scharff Smith and Gampell, 2011; Uggen and McElrath, 2014). As Uggen and McElrath (2014: 600) comment, "Through no fault of their own, kids with incarcerated parents are at a terrible disadvantage”.

In recent years, positive initiatives have emerged including greater recognition of the situation for families through independent and official research, the development of human rights standards (most significant, the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)) and the provision of innovative support services (Condry et al., 2016). However, the impact of these developments has been threatened by a deepening global “penal crisis”, as evidenced by increased prison numbers, over-crowding and poor conditions, staff and prisoner unrest, mental ill-health, self-harm and deaths, high rates of recidivism and limited community resources (Cavadino et al., 2013; see also Penal Reform International, 2018). Access to core services for prisoners and their families is threatened within a context of austerity and subsequent reductions in funding within both statutory and voluntary sector organisations (see for example, Butler et al., 2015; Clinks, 2017).

The focus of this chapter is the experiences of children with parents in prison in Northern Ireland. It is based on qualitative research conducted by the authors with their colleague Phil Scraton1 (Moore et al., 2011). Within the research, children’s experiences are considered in relation to a broad definition of "family”, in recognition that imprisonment affects not only the traditional nuclear family unit, but also a wider circle including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, partners, neighbours and friends. The research also acknowledges the significance of the broader societal and penal context for prisoners, families and children. The “penal crisis” in Northern Ireland has been exacerbated by the legacy of violent conflict and sectarianism. Consequently, an ethos of security and control has predominated over duties of care and “rehabilitation” (PRT, 2011; Moore and Scraton, 2014). Successive independent and official inspection reports have called for systemic transformation (PRT, 2011). However, their recommendations have been met with institutional and political resistance (Wahidin et al., 2012; Scraton, 2015).

The chapter opens by acknowledging the pain and violence inherent within the process of imprisonment (Sykes, 1958; Goffman, 1961; Scraton and McCulloch, 2009). Key messages from research on prisoners’ families are reviewed. The particular impact on children is noted, with reference to the children's rights that are engaged by parental imprisonment. Following this, the chapter establishes the Northern Ireland penal context. Findings from the primary research are then discussed in relation to experiences of separation and loss, the prison environment and stigma for families within and outwith the prison system. In conclusion, the case is made that the disadvantage and injustice experienced by children with parents in prison can only be tackled within the context of significant penal reduction and social justice.

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