Prison and parenting

Nancy Loucks argues that parents in prison are still parents and that there are clear benefits, in most cases, to maintaining prisoners' family ties, both for the person in prison and for the wider family.

Each year, an estimated 16,500 children in Scotland experience a parent's imprisonment; this means that a parent's imprisonment affects more children each year than divorce (Families Outside 2009, extrapolated from Scottish Prison Service 2002).

In fact, this is probably an underestimate. The 2011 Prisoner Survey (SPS 2011) reported that 48% of prisoners are parents of children under the age of 18 (with about two-thirds of women reporting being parents; Loucks 1998; Corston 2007). Based on an average of 8,500 people in prison each day in Scotland and the number of children these prisoners reported having, a conservative estimate is that, every day, about 7,600 children in Scotland have a parent in prison. Considering that the number of people received into Scottish prisons in 2010/11 was 35,930 (The Scottish Government 2011), the overall figure of children experiencing a parent's imprisonment per year is likely to be much higher.*

Parenting from prison

Parents in prison can find it difficult to feel 'legitimate' in their role as parents. This can create problems on release, where the passage of time and inability to participate in a child's daily life means they have problems reconnecting with their children. For example, Grounds (2009) reported longer-term prisoners treating their children on release as though the children were the same age as they were at the time of the imprisonment. Parents who have been in prison may not be aware of their child's development and needs and may, consequently, feel that their connection with their children is deteriorating (Bouregba et al. 2006).

Low self-esteem is a common result. Contact with children may be difficult or unpleasant during custody, so the parent in prison may decide to reduce or stop contact. However, children cope better when they have the opportunity to visit their parent in prison (Zehr and Amstutz 2011). In contrast, little or no contact through visits or otherwise increases the emotional distance between a parent and child, thereby exacerbating difficulties in their relationship.

Normally when people struggle with parenting, they can draw on a number of formal and informal sources. For example, a parent may consult with friends or family, speak with a teacher or health visitor, or perhaps look up information in books or on the internet. They can also work through issues with their children as they arise, experimenting with different methods of parenting and means of communication.

None of these options is possible from prison. Opportunities to communicate with usual social supports are highly limited, especially if distance, cost or difficulty travelling prevents visits to prison. Family members cannot telephone a prisoner, and telephone calls from prisoners are both costly and limited. Prisoners cannot use the internet and are unlikely to have contact with teaching or medical staff with expertise in child development. Imprisonment can undermine a parent's rights and responsibilities, and often this is because they do not know what these are. Access to this information supports the parental role on every level (Bouregba et al. 2006) but access to information from prison can be exceptionally challenging.

Imprisonment also calls into question one's ability to remain a parent, particularly for women in prison. When a father goes to prison, the mother cares for the children in 95% of cases. When a mother goes to prison, however, only 5% of children remain in the family home (Prison Reform Trust 2005, although estimates vary: cf Loucks 2011). The pressure of finding a carer for their children or ensuring that such a carer has been found adds to what is already an extremely stressful experience (Fournier 2000), compounded by the risk that they may not regain custody on release. Women are more likely than men to lose housing while in custody (e.g. Corston 2007) and are rehoused as 'single homeless', unable to regain custody of their children because they do not have suitable accommodation for them. Distance to women's prisons is further on average, so contact with children is even more challenging. The 'maternal distress' stemming from their more frequent role as primary carer can exacerbate what are already difficult issues for women (Arditti and Few 2008), and the consequent impact on children is more extreme.

Parents and carers outside

Parenting from prison creates a whole range of issues and obstacles - but parenting can be at least as difficult for the carers left outside. Comments such as He was the breadwinner - how will we manage? are common, as are concerns from families worried about the cost and logistics of maintaining contact. Grandparents frequently end up caring for their grandchildren. They may have to give up work in order to care for children or may have to return to work from retirement to manage the extra cost (Bernstein 2005). While some manage to claim Kinship Care Allowance, the benefits system does not always equate the rights of grandparents to the rights of foster carers in these circumstances. One great-grandmother who had been caring for her eight- and 13-year old grandchildren since they were two days and five months old, respectively, said, To other caregivers I'd say, you need to really think about how far you can go and not crack (Zehr and Amstutz 2011).

The repercussions can be significant even where partners have separated. One caller to the Families Outside Support & Information Helpline rang to ask about financial support, as her child support payments stopped when her ex-partner went to prison. She said she could no longer afford basics such as the bus fare to get her children to school; as she put it, He's doing the sentence, but I'm paying the price.

The impact of a family member's imprisonment extends well beyond the prisoner's experience. Children and families often suffer through deterioration of their finances and welfare benefits, housing, physical and mental health, children's performance at school and social standing. Indeed, the stigma of imprisonment prevents these families from seeking the support they need to cope with these changes: Pugh and Lanskey (2011) found that 72% of families visiting prisons were not receiving support from any outside agency, despite the many issues they faced as a result of their family member's imprisonment.

Support for parents affected by imprisonment

Various initiatives can support imprisoned parents. Events such as 'family days' (more relaxed, extended visits that create quality time for families in prisons), and homework clubs such as the one at HMP Edinburgh, go a long way towards promoting a parent's role from within prison. A family learning project at HMP The Wolds in England brings families of children aged five and under together for active learning events in the prison - often the most time the fathers in prison said they have spent with their children (Prisons Video Trust 2009). Meanwhile, fathers in the Learning Together Project at HMP Parc in Wales follow the school curriculum along with their children, then help their children with their homework when they come into the prison . One of the difficulties with such programmes thus far is that only a small number of prisoner parents can use them. For example, the homework club at HMP Edinburgh ran with only three families out of a population of 900 prisoners, nor do such initiatives exist in most prisons.

Further afield, Bouregba and colleagues (2006) give examples of craft workshops in which parents can create objects for their children (such as those run by Relais Enfant Parents Associations in France); support groups and individual counselling (such as those run by Bambinisenzasbarre in Italy); and 'study circles' for imprisoned parents in Sweden. In the United States, Girl Scouts of the USA runs an initiative called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, which transplants scout meetings into women's prisons so that girls can take part in these with their mothers.

Another important element of support for parents in prison - and for those outside - is to recognise and support all parents in wider government initiatives. For example, the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 places a duty on educational authorities to give advice and information to any parent of a pupil in a state-run school when that parent 'reasonably requests it' on any matter relating to the child's education. Similarly, the Curriculum for Excellence emphasises the need to encourage parental involvement in their children's education. Parents in prison will need considerable support to do this; at present, such interaction with parents is down to the efforts of individual guidance teachers who take an interest, as no formal links or supports exist in prisons for links with children's education. Equally, the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 could benefit children who struggle in school following a parent's imprisonment but thus far has not routinely been applied in this way.

Further, national campaigns such as Play, Talk, Read could be promoted in prisons and in prison visitors' centres. Parenting programmes such as Mellow Parenting and Group Triple P have run very successfully in prisons, showing measurable benefits to participants (e.g. Montgomery 2011). Parenting work specifically adapted for the prison context, such as Barnardo's Parenting Matters course in Northern Ireland (Collins, Healy and Dunn, n. d.) and, in Scotland, Aberlour's work with women in prison at HMP & YOI Cornton Vale (Burgess and Malloch 2008) and SmileChildcare's work at HMP Edinburgh (Loucks 2008; now delivered by Barnardo's) have all evaluated positively.

The forthcoming national parenting strategy could be pivotal in recognising that parents in prison are still parents, and in identifying how they and the carer(s) outside prison can be supported to fulfil this role.

Including parents in the agenda

Imprisonment is a family experience and has a particular impact on the role of the parents both in and out of prison. Parents in prison are still parents - but fulfilling that role through the physical and emotional distance is exceptionally challenging. Equally, families of prisoners do not always access the support or opportunities available, and the stigma of imprisonment often prevents them from seeking the help they need.

The research internationally shows clear benefits to maintaining prisoners' family ties, both for the person in prison and for the wider family in the majority of cases: the parenting role is worth supporting, unless individual circumstances suggest otherwise. In the difficult context of prison, this requires awareness, commitment and involvement from agencies including criminal justice, education and health, along with a wider government commitment specifically to include these parents in its agenda.

* The equivalent figure of children per year would be 32,126. However, some prisoners will have entered prison more than once in the same year, so the number of children affected will be slightly lower.

† This has the dual benefit of encouraging adult literacy in a non-stigmatising way while supporting children to stay engaged in school.

About the author

Nancy Loucks is the chief executive of Families Outside, a Scottish charity that works on behalf of families affected by imprisonment. Prior to this she worked as an independent criminologist, specialising in research on prison policy and comparative criminology. She received her MPhil and PhD from the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde Centre for Law, Crime and Justice.


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