This week, COPE’s annual campaign “Not my crime, still my sentence” will be focusing on the importance of collecting data relating to children of prisoners. Included in Article 6 of the Italian Memorandum of Understanding and expressly stated as the subject of a Council of Europe Parliamentary resolution, data collection is an issue of key importance when it comes to helping children with imprisoned parents.
Based on COPE’s estimates, 800,000 children have a parent in prison on any given day in the European Union, a figure that rises to 2.1 million when all Council of Europe countries are included. The total number of children affected throughout a year is likely even higher again, given that the total number of people committed to prison throughout the course of a year is usually higher than the average daily population. These figures are, however, only estimates of the numbers of children affected by parental imprisonment; basing its analysis on a 1999 study undertaken by the French institute for statistics, INSEE, COPE was able to extrapolate the estimated number of children, based on a rate of 1.3 children per male prisoner, across European countries.
While these extrapolations are important in giving us an idea of the number of children potentially effected by parental imprisonment, continued and improved data collection is of fundamental importance. Good data collection allows us to get a better picture of the number of children affected and allows us to point to a real, identifiable population that need our help.
The argument could even be made that COPE’s current figures are an underestimate of the number of children impacted by parental imprisonment. Speaking at the recent Council of Europe Conference of Directors of Prison and Probation Services in the Netherlands, Attila Juhász, of the Council for Penological Co-operation, stated that recent research suggested that imprisoned parents in Hungary have on average 2.5 children. Until more work is done to collect accurate data, we risk under-representing vulnerable children across Europe who need our support.
Most importantly, however, good data on children of prisoners allows governments, charities and NGOs to target their efforts and resources where they are needed most. It also permits the long-term evaluation of support initiatives for children of prisoners: how can you assess the effectiveness of these initiatives over time if there is no baseline indicators to begin with? How can you track the evolution of a child’s school performance if early indicators have not been assessed? Children of prisoners have been described as the invisible victims of the criminal justice system and until we know how many of them there are and where they are, they are at risk of remaining overlooked.
Data collection, however, is not an easy process and there are many obstacles to good data collection. Some prisoners may be uneasy about releasing information concerning their families to the state and may lack trust in the authorities due to the fear of how it may impact their children. From the perspective of the child, the right to privacy and data protection must also be balanced against the need to obtain accurate statistics. Furthermore, data collection may actually negatively impact children if it is done in an overly restrictive way; when children are made to register and/or be approved before prison visits, as is set to be the case in New Zealand from 1 September 2016, the excess strain, cost and other worries outlined above may mean that children avoid visiting their parents altogether. There can also be practical considerations that make surveys and data collection difficult. Access, financial cost, and security issues related to working in prisons can make it difficult to administer large-scale surveys, especially for non-governmental actors such as NGOs.
National governments are, however, in a unique position to collect data on children of prisoners, having both the resources and the infrastructure to do so. This fact is recognised by the Italian Memorandum of Understanding, which mandates the collection of data on children by the Italian Department of Penitentiary Administration and the Department for Juvenile Justice. A recent pilot project launched in Ireland by the Irish Prison Service, The Irish Penal Reform Trust and Child Development Initiative is also getting to grips with data collection issues. While no results from that on-going survey have been finalised or published as of yet, initial results from the data analysis charity Datakind suggest that the survey will be an effective means of assessing the number of children affected by parental imprisonment in Ireland.
COPE is highlighting the issue of data collection on children of prisoners this week as it is an often underappreciated issue and more needs to be done across Europe to gather accurate statistics and information that can be used to help children with imprisoned parents. When carried out effectively and sympathetically to both children and prisoners, data collection has the possibility to positively impact the services available to children.
COPE will continue to highlight this issue at the European level and there are currently positive signs from the Council of Europe that they will increase their data collection efforts. Jan Kleijssen, Director of the Information Society and Action Against Crime Directorate at the Council of Europe, suggested in his closing remarks at the Conference of Directors of Prison and Probation Services in June that the Council of Europe make a recommendation to SPACE (Statistiques Pénales Annuelles du Conseil de l’Europe) that they collect statistics on the availability, or lack thereof, of child focused visiting rooms. COPE is hoping to further engage with the Council of Europe on this issue and is confident that progress will be made in future.