Research has found that family support enables released prisoners to re-establish themselves within society, however the cost of this to family members is unknown. Children suffer when their parents are imprisoned, particularly if the parent is the primary carer, enduring significant upheaval and distress as a consequence of dealing with emotional and physical changes to their lives. It is likely that they are affected by a parent’s re-negotiation of the parental role post-release but children’s experiences of parental re-entry have not been considered within criminological literature. Using family process and social networks theories the impact of parental re-entry on children and their caregivers will be investigated within the context of children’s rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. The cost of family involvement in desistance will be considered from the perspective of children and those with whom they lived during their parent’s imprisonment.
Family support has ‘a significant impact’ on a former prisoner's likelihood of successful reintegration into society and reduces their risk of reoffending (Naser, Hart, 2006:21). In criminological desistance literature families are viewed through an instrumental lens as a tool of desistance (Weaver and Nolan, 2015:9; Codd, 2007). The Ministry of Justice has referred to families as ‘a resource which is part of the solution’ (2007:17). Despite emphasizing the importance of families to released prisoners, research has failed ‘to address how the family is affected by incarceration and reentry’ (Naser, Hart, 2006:21). The effects upon family members are particularly profound when a prisoner returns to the family home, and when that prisoner is a parent.
The experiences of children of prisoners are almost entirely absent from post-imprisonment literature. Where children’s experiences are referenced their own voices are not heard:
‘most women [prisoners] note that their children’s suffering continues after their mother is released … Often the legal, practical, and emotional challenges are so overwhelming that women and their children never resolve the damage caused by the ruptured relationships’ (Richie, B.E., 2001: 379)
By overlooking the impacts of release and reintegration on family members the desistance literature may have suggested a falsely positive view of family involvement in a former prisoner’s journey to a non-offending lifestyle which profoundly neglects the experiences of family members.
Why does this matter?
Punishment theory concerns itself with individuals, but people exist in families. Families are seen as part of desistance strategy but families of prisoners are more than a resource available to meet criminal justice policy aims. It is known that parental imprisonment harms children. Without understanding children’s experiences of parental release, the state cannot promote the well-being of these children, nor meet its duty of care towards them.
300,000 children in the UK are estimated to be affected each year by parental imprisonment; almost four times as many children as are in the ‘care’ population (children looked after by the local authority). Children of prisoners are not supported by the state during the period of their parents’ imprisonment, and research has found that they have reduced life chances as a consequence of parental imprisonment. In a country which has lower child well-being than many other nations in Europe it is remiss to overlook the ongoing impact of parental imprisonment on children. In a global conversation about children’s rights this work has relevance to the state’s duty under Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) to protect children from any discrimination or punishment which they experience as a consequence of the status of their parent. By collecting data from children on how families re-structure, and the tangible and intangible disruptions which children of released prisoners experience, it will become possible to understand how to promote resilience and recovery in not just ex-prisoners but in their children, so that their parent’s crime does not adversely impact their life chances. This study has relevance to issues of social inequalities, the organisation of democratic society and the duties of the state to its citizens, the rights of children, desistance, and the purpose of punishment.