What It's Like to Have a Parent in Prison

A new report released last week in the UK examines how families are treated by prison staff and how intimidating these visits can be for them.

by Alun Evans
Dec 8 2015, 5:10pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Right now, there are approximately 200,000 children affected by parental imprisonment in England and Wales. Couple this with around 1,500 on any given day in Northern Ireland and 30,000 in Scotland and it's a substantial figure. When you take into account that around 65 percent of boys with a convicted father will go on to offend themselves, and that an estimated 45 percent of prisoners lose contact with their families once they're inside, these figures raise an important question: how are families of prisoners treated by those involved in the process?

Last week, the British charity Barnardo's released Locked Out, a report detailing the experiences of children visiting a parent in prison. Conducted by Dr. Jane Evans, Locked Out examines how families are treated by prison staff and how intimidating these visits can be for them. One element of the report looks at the intrusive searches performed on children (for example, newborns are strip-searched and have their diapers searched) before they enter the prison, which appear disproportionate to the security risks posed.

"Guards are on the lookout for drugs and contraband," Evans says, when I speak to her about the protocols involved. "The search is normally a pat-down and a dog circles 'round you to see if they can smell drugs. That's fine for an adult—this dog can sniff up to about waist height—but you can imagine if you're a child of about five or six, they're going to come right up into your face. The other thing is, for girls [the guards will] undo their hair ornaments or their braiding and take them away. A lot of the kids, they'll dress up because it's a special occasion to see their dads and so they'll do their hair special and then they take that stuff away."

When asked about the atmosphere of these visits, Kate*, 20, whose stepfather is currently serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for drug-related offenses, says: "It does all depend on what the staff are like. Obviously it's not nice to go through and be searched, but you can understand why you have to. But if you've got someone who's doing it with a smile, it's much nicer than someone that is scowling at you."

Helen*, 27, whose husband served a seven-month term of a two-and-a-half year sentence last year, tells me the weekly "normal visits" were just too much for her two young daughters.

"[For] my children—one had just turned four and the other was coming up two—it was very scary, very daunting. All the different searches—they go in different rooms and then one door is shut so another can open. My eldest daughter was expected to stand on the red square on her own, stand still and have this dog come up to her face, so for her it was very intimidating."

Instead, Helen and her husband opted for the specific "family visits" the prison offered each month, where a charity working within the prison would train volunteers to become guards for these visits.

"It's a voluntary system," she says, "so the guards wanted to be there. They did all the processes a lot quicker, the searches much quicker and in a more child-orientated way. From the word go the guards were much more animated. It was just a lot easier."

Kate says the guards in the various prisons she's visited across the country (her father has been moved six times so far in his sentence) are both "really intimidating" and "really abrupt most of the time," adding, "it's as if I feel like I've done something wrong. That's how they make me feel."

This attitude of placing blame on those related to inmates is reiterated by Helen in describing the "normal visit" guard's interactions with her daughters. "They didn't speak to them, basically," she says. "Very rarely you'd get a prison officer interacting with a child. It almost felt like you were the prisoner, like you'd done something wrong, not that you were visiting somebody in prison."

When I ask Dr. Evans what improvements might be made to this visiting process, she is adamant: "I think [the security team] should work on intelligence. If they have serious reason to suspect children are bringing in drugs then search them. But if they're babies—I mean babies in arms—there's no need to go through their nappies. The other thing [Barnardo's] are saying is that alright, search the child, but do it in a way that's friendly. Young children need to know what's going on and why it's going on."

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The Incentive and Earned Privileges (IEP) system currently employed in UK prisons divides prisoners into four categories: Entry, Basic, Standard, and Enhanced. This means that visiting hours can be controlled as a means of reward or punishment for a prisoner. Since the scheme was changed in 2013 (the coalition government made significant reforms to the policy stating that in order to earn privileges prisoners will not only have to avoid bad behavior, but will now have to actively work towards their own rehabilitation and to help others do so too), this regulation of visiting allowances is being increasingly used to punish prisoners.

While the number of prisoners awarded the "basic" status of two hours has risen by 52 percent since the scheme was changed, prisoners awarded the "enhanced" status of four or more visiting hours has fallen by about 16 percent.

Weekend visiting rights and family visit days, available largely only to "enhanced" prisoners, have also been affected by this newly-changed system, meaning that it is becoming more and more difficult for children to spend quality time with their imprisoned fathers (notably, this policy is not applied in women's prisons, where visiting hours remain untouched by the IEP scheme).

In the UK, there's an underlying stigma attached to family members of prisoners, as if somehow crime's inherent in their genetic make-up. It's an issue that crops up regularly when talking with the families of inmates.

I ask Kate whether she experiences this kind of reaction from having a parent who's still in prison. "Oh yeah definitely," she says, but points out that she doesn't really talk about the situation much with anyone outside her immediate circle. "There's a few friends that sort of know about it, but it's not something that comes up in common conversation."

Inevitably it's a situation that has affected her everyday life. "I think I've had to do things differently than I would've done," Kate says. "So say like for example my stepdad not being there: I've got two young brothers, and at 18 years old I wasn't expecting to help look after them. I've had to take on additional roles to fill his space."

With the statistic that 65 percent of boys with a convicted father going on to offend themselves ringing in my ears, I ask Kate what her stepdad says to her two younger brothers when they visit, if he's worried that they might go down the same route.

"Yeah," she says, "and he's very much, y'know... he doesn't want that to happen."

Speaking about the time her husband was first arrested, Helen says: "Where we live is a very small community and everybody knows your business, so everybody did find out and both me and the girls were very much judged, kind of put in a box. We're a good family, but as soon as people found out where he'd gone... when I took my daughter to school it was very, very difficult. It was almost like they didn't want to talk to me, didn't want to associate with me. People who I thought were friends all of a sudden disappeared."

Barnardo's Chief Executive Javed Khan has stated: "Children with a parent in prison are the innocent victims of someone else's crime. They struggle with the heartbreak of having their parent suddenly taken away. Intensifying that loss by taking away precious hours with their parent, or making visits unnecessarily uncomfortable, will only punish the children. It's time for a sea change in the way these overlooked and isolated children are treated."

I ask Dr. Evans what this "sea change" would mean for the UK prison system.

"One of the big changes Barnardo's would like to see effected in all prisons is to use this family intervention approach for children's visits," Dr. Evans says. "We want to see visits taken away from the IEP scheme [so] that people are entitled to visits because they've got family who want to visit them and not because they've behaved in a certain way.

"We started from the basis that children have a right to have contact with both their parents as long as that's not going to be a risk to them; that's basic children's rights in the UN convention."

Before ending our conversation, I ask Helen whether she has any advice for young people who might be facing a similar situation.

"When you're visiting somebody in prison," she says, "take what's happening on the chin and don't take it to heart. Don't think [the guards are] there to be intentionally horrible to you, because I don't think they are... At the end of the day they're doing a job, and I think they get too involved in the job to realize that the people visiting are just human beings."

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

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Alun Evans