The pains of imprisonment: the impact on children and families

Deprivations experienced by family members

It has been well established that imprisonment is a deeply painful experience involving restrictions on liberty, autonomy, personal safety, sexual expression, and access to goods and services: deprivations so intense as to constitute a “serious attack on the personality” (Sykes, 1958, p. 4). Physically separated from families, friends and communities, prisoners suffer a loss of relationships, a disconnect that may increase over time. Prisons impose a barrier between the individual and the “wider world” (Goffman, 1961, p. 24). On entering the institution, each person loses the roles established in the community - foremost as a free citizen, but also in relation to parenthood, relationships and employment. This is exacerbated through societal “moral rejection” (Sykes, 1958, p. 285) whereby individuals’ primary status becomes that of “prisoner” or "inmate”. This “role dispossession” (Goffman, 1961, p. 24) is reinforced through admissions procedures: being searched, photographed, assigned a number and instructed on institutional rales. Some roles may be re-established on return to society, but others are irrevocably lost.

As argued by Condry et al. (2016, p. 623), imprisonment “imposes systematic disadvantage, oppression and domination on not only prisoners, but on the families of those who are imprisoned”. Families and children are part of the “free world”. Yet, they too suffer the pain of enforced separation. Those with an imprisoned partner or spouse experience the loss or restriction of sexual relationships. Families’ standard of living is reduced through loss of earnings and the costs of supporting and maintaining contact with the person in prison. This burden falls hardest on poor women living in disadvantaged communities (Breen, 2008). In terms of prison visits, Rosenberg (2009) found that families and children have to cope with geographic distance, transportation and financial barriers, emotional and time demands and, in some cases, disrespectful attitudes of prison staff. Families must obey prison rules regarding contact. They are subjected to search procedures, and routinely experience a visiting environment with “uncomfortable, intimidating conditions” that lack play facilities or privacy (Glover, 2009, p. 9). Like their imprisoned relatives, they also experience identity dispossession, taking on the label of “prisoner’s family” (Glover, 2009).

Outside the prison walls, families are marginalised and stigmatised within local communities (Condry, 2007; Codd, 2008; Glover, 2009; Scharff Smith and Gampbell, 2011). Condry (2007, p. 65) found that prisoners’ relatives were “always aware of the potential to be under the shaming gaze of others”, resulting in friendships ended, being subject to gossip, verbal abuse and, occasionally, physical attack. Imprisonment of a family member may lead to professional interventions, such as the involvement of social workers. Such interventions are often welcomed, but not always. Reactions to the situation are complex. Comfort (2008, p. 12) describes a process of “secondary prisonization” whereby relatives “at once denounced and commended the criminal justice system for its intercession in their personal lives”. Families are pivotal in the resettlement process, often providing accommodation, financial support and a sense of stability and purpose. However, as Mills and Codd (2008, p. 16) note, this may burden families with “additional responsibility for assisting in offender management, at a time which is already profoundly stressful”. They recommend involving families, for example in the sentence-planning process, but only in ways beneficial to everyone involved.

The impact of parental imprisonment on children

The impact of imprisonment on families has particularly profound consequences for children. As noted by Murray (2007, p. 55), children with parents in prison are “vulnerable to multiple types of social exclusion, including pre-existing deprivation; loss of material and social capital following imprisonment; stigma; ‘linguistic exclusion'; political exclusion; poor future prospects; and administrative invisibility”. These problems are compounded by the disadvantage characterising many children’s lives prior to their parents’ imprisonment (Murray et al., 2009). The challenges faced by children with a parent in prison include the trauma of parental arrest, loss and separation, anxiety about their incarcerated parent, accessing and processing difficult information, being asked to keep secrets, bullying and stigmatisation. Prison visits may be positive occasions for children but can also be frightening, distressing or boring (Scharff Smith and Gampell, 2011; COPE, 2014).

Imprisonment of a mother has particularly damaging consequences and often results in children's placement within the care system (Minson et al., 2015; see also Chapter 6 (p. 87), Chapter 10 (p. 168), and Chapter 11 (p. 187) of this volume). Only five per cent of children affected by maternal imprisonment will stay in their own homes (Baldwin, 2015, p. 152). Children of imprisoned mothers are also significantly more likely to experience mental health issues than those with

Living with the pains of confinement 25 imprisoned fathers (ibid). Two-thirds of women prisoners have children under the age of 18 years and when adult children are included, the figure is significantly higher (ibid). Yet, women’s offending is generally neither violent nor serious, raising doubts about the rationale for their incarceration (Corston, 2007).

 
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