As we imprison more adults, what’s happening to the children?

When we imprison adults, we are more often than not imprisoning parents. So what happens to their children? shutterstock

Over the past six months, Victoria’s prison system has been widely acknowledged as overcrowded and at “breaking point”. Police cells are full of those awaiting a court hearing. The County Court is being used on weekends to hear Magistrates Court matters.

One important point – which has not been raised in any discussion so far – is that when we imprison adults, we are more often than not imprisoning parents. It is thought that around 50% of adults in prison have dependent children, though this data is not reliably collected by governments. In the current circumstances, this means more than 5000 Victorian children have a parent absent because of imprisonment.

It was estimated and supported recently that somewhere around 5% of Australian children will experience a parent’s imprisonment during their childhood. So, where is the consideration for these children when discussing community safety? What do these children need to be safe and secure in our community?

Victoria’s rising prison numbers

Victoria’s prison population is the fastest growing in the country. Figures show a 12% increase in the last 12 months. The state government’s response is to build more prisons, provide more beds and, in the meantime, to house people in converted shipping containers at a cost of around A$5 million.

This is done in the name of community safety, to keep “dangerous offenders” off Victoria’s streets. Whether any increase in prison numbers is due to the refusal or cancelling of parole for violent offenders is unknown.

Former Pentridge Prison chaplain Peter Norden reminded us recently of the clear links between social and economic disadvantage and offending and imprisonment, which is borne out in the most recent statistical profile of Victoria’s prisons.

Suffer the children

The children of those who commit crime already live in challenging environments. They are often exposed to parental difficulties, such as alcohol and drug use, mental illness and poverty.

These children face increased risks to their safety and well-being when their parents come into contact with the criminal justice system, as this system can have unintended, but adverse effects on children. These include being suddenly separated from their parent/s and having little contact during the period of imprisonment. Research, including in Victoria shows around one in two parents do not receive visits.

Most parents will resume their parenting role after release, often without preparation or support, and typically having had poor contact with their children while imprisoned. This is unfortunate, given studies show that maintaining contact through visiting has positive benefits for all concerned.

Those who remain connected with their family re-engage in the community more effectively and show lower rates of offending. Their children cope better during the separation, as do the parents - who show less problem behaviour in prison.

A recent unpublished report on a child-focused visiting program in Victoria run by SHINE for Kids, an organisation that supports children with a parent in the criminal justice system, showed that providing prison visits that are family-focused and in a child-friendly environment helps parents remain connected or reconnect to their parenting role.

This environment helps them to maintain a link with their identity as a family member, as a parent, not just as a number or an offender. That has to be a good thing for families.

Increased numbers, increased problems?

So, how is the surge in prison numbers affecting children and families who are visiting? Quite simply, we don’t know. While there has been much talk about rising prisoner numbers, there has been no associated talk about increased visiting facilities to deal with more people.

The most recent research into children’s experiences of prison visitation in Victoria was conducted before the recent prisoner surge. Yet even those findings showed that for children, while they wanted and valued time with their parent, visiting was difficult. Children depend on carers to get them to the prison setting and, when there, must contend with an environment that treats them as guilty by association.

The quality of visitation time children experience is also poor. This is mostly because of factors in the environment which would seem able to be changed, such as staff attitudes and surveillance strategies. Current and increasing pressures on both staff and the prison environment mean that their ability to see and consider children is likely to be further impeded.

In this time of black-and-white arguments about guilt and innocence and victims and offenders, we would do well to remember that many offenders are also victims, and that their children are both unintended and invisible victims.

We can do something to alleviate this. Children need to be prioritised in any prison visiting arrangements, for their long-term good and the good of the community.

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