In March 2020 prisons in the UK put in a place a restricted regime in order to mitigate against the risks of Covid-19 within prisons. Social visits were cancelled with immediate effect. The estimated 300,000 children who experience parental imprisonment each year in England and Wales suffer a number of harms during 'normal' times and therefore to experience parental imprisonment without the possibility of face to face visits in the midst of a pandemic during which children were also experiencing lockdown in their homes, seemed likely to amplify those harms and difficulties.
Although my focus is on child centric research it was not thought right to engage directly with children during lockdown, so instead adults caring for children with an imprisoned parents were invited to fill in an anonymous questionnaire and to take part in a video interview about the experiences of the child(ren) they looked after. In that way the study explored the experiences of more than 70 children whose parents were in prison across the UK during the first lockdown in 2020.
The report 'The impact of COVID-19 prison lockdowns on children with a parent in prison' is available here
The study found that children experienced confusing and complex emotions when face to face visits were stopped. Many children thought that their parent didn’t want to see them anymore, or maybe their parent no longer loved them. Children blamed themselves for this.
Many prisons did not have video call facilities in operation until early 2021 however video-calls and phone calls between children and parents were found to be inadequate in reinforcing the bond between parent and child. Physical contact between parent and child is of great importance to the development of relationships and both younger and older children missed hugs, touch, and seeing their parent.
In many establishments, prisoners were confined to their cells for up to 23 hours each day and they reported having to choose to use the time out of their cells to, for example, either have a shower or phone their child. Added to that the cost of calls from prison remains high and some families still found it hard to pay for sufficient phone time. Prior to the pandemic many prisoners were allowed out to work and had access to a mobile phone, but that ended with the lockdown.
“They think he doesn’t care about them because he can only ring for five minutes per
The study found that almost all participants reported that the children were experiencing sadness and grief related to the loss of contact with their parent. Children were suffering from depression and anxiety and there were incidences of and the onset of eating disorders. Almost all participants were concerned about the difficulties families would face when the parent was released, as particularly for young children, the parent was a virtual stranger.
The report shares recommendations for change made by families including cell telephony or secured mobile phones being made available to every prisoner to enable frequent phone contact, and that the Government should provide a clear and publicly communicated roadmap for the re-establishment of prison visits, and the lifting of restrictions within prisons, at the same time as announcements are made about the rest of the community. There are also recommendations that more use should be made of the early release scheme to allow parents to serve the end of their sentences at home, and for improvements to be made to the video call facilities within prisons.