Children outside Prison

(From: Jan C.M. Willems (ed.), Developmental and Autonomy Rights of Children: Empowering Children, Caregivers and Communities, Intersentia: Antwerp/Oxford/New York, 2002, pp. 191-207 (90-5095-224-0; read the full text here.

Children show a variety of reactions after the imprisonment of one or both parents, depending on the age of the child, the reactions in the neighbourhood or the social network, the kind of crime, the length of the imprisonment and the place. Just to raise some awareness of the kind of situations, I will give some examples 1

As mentioned above, mothers are often the primary caretaker and so, when a mother is imprisoned, family life most of the time is heavily disturbed. Most of the imprisoned mothers were single mothers before or they are left alone by their partner soon after their imprisonment. Sometimes the children are looked after for a few days, but in the long run, lasting arrangements have to be made. For a mother it is not easy to arrange things when she is in a police cell or on remand. Especially if she is arrested far from home or in a foreign country this is very hard. Sometimes older children try to replace the imprisoned mother and they try to keep the family together. When a father is imprisoned, quite often the eldest son is going to fulfil the role of the father. Younger children are sometimes kept in the dark. They suffer from not knowing what really happened. As Van Nijnatten says: relationships with siblings last longest in people’s lives. 2

Siblings usually build up a kind of solidarity, but they also have reason to compete for parental favour. This relationship might come under particular pressure if some children in the family know about the imprisonment of a parent but have orders not to tell to their younger sister or brother. So the child’s place in the family system plays a role. And the fact whether the imprisonment of the parent is kept secret.

When a father is arrested, most of the time the mother stays behind with her children, often in poor circumstances. Women seem to be much more loyal to their imprisoned partner then is the case the other way around. This also means that, for example, for fathers it might be easier to use leave facilities than for mothers. Bertrand observes: 3

‘In Germany, as expected and according to the country’s prison law, prisoners are allowed to spend two or three weeks in their family per year; however, that proved unhelpful for the majority of women inmates who, after a short period inside, no longer had a waiting spouse, had no home to go, and, in fact, no more family.’

In The United Kingdom recently, research was done amongst young people, aged between 12 and 18, with a mother, father, sister, brother (step- or half-relatives included) in prison. 4

Many young people did not want to participate in the research. According to the researchers:  5

‘(…) the issue of trust and not knowing “who can be told what” is a significant one in many of these young people’s lives. Some young people needed to be reassured during the interview that all information was and would remain strictly confidential and anonymous.’

Interviewed children describe the first days and weeks after the arrest as the worst period. One example is of a fifteen years old girl who at the time of the arrest just had been placed out of home and then in the local newspaper read about her father’s imprisonment. 6

If a parent is arrested in the presence of a child, this for the relatives is often unexpected and traumatic. There are sad stories about tracing activities in the home, where for example cuddles were destroyed by police officers while they tried to find drugs. All participants in the UK study identified visiting as a main issue, especially to ensure the welfare and mental well-being of the prisoner. 7

The lack of privacy during visits is of more of a concern than the issue of being searched. In a Danish study, young children said especially the first visit had been important to them to be able to see that the parent was alive. 8

Beside issues round visiting, the lack of information is a major concern. And the concern for the prisoner as well as the family on the outside. ‘Shame, a sense of “missing out” uncertainty and feeling like they were treated as criminals themselves were all expressed by the young people’. 9

In the Report Social and Family Effects of Detention it is observed: 10

‘In general the stigma afflicting persons sentenced to a custodial penalty is passed on to the family. A number of labels and stereotypes materialise in the day-to-day life of close relatives. This branding takes various forms including isolation, distrust and suspicion, with rejection and exploitation at either extreme. Neighbourhood and school are an ideal setting for the disparaging attitudes adopted by other people, for example the scathing reactions of schoolmates: “Your father’s a jailbird.” The female convict is found to be both subjectively and objectively still more persistent and represents a sometimes insuperable handicap.’

Apparently a distinction is made by teenagers between primary school and secondary school on the issue of informing teachers. 11 On the issue of support, about what helped them: 12

‘(…) all of the young people said that the person they most wanted support from was their mum. They did not want to talk to anyone outside the family or get support from anyone else, particularly at the beginning. Their biggest concern, however, was that their mums needed support themselves and couldn’t necessarily offer support to them if they were themselves upset and distressed.’

This connects to a Danish study, where the imprisoned parent wanted the visits more often than the partners outside prison could manage. As Christensen says: 13

‘The partners outside prison argued they no longer had any time for leisure-time activity either alone or together with their children. If they had a job, and went to visit a prison every Saturday or Sunday, then there was only one day left for anything else, including cleaning, laundry, and other housekeeping tasks most often done during the weekends. Those partners described their life as “living in a prison without bars”.’

The worst case scenario seems to be the murdering of a parent by the other parent, sometimes in the presence of a child. In that case the child looses both parents. In a few cases it might be a relief after a history of conflicts. But it will be traumatic in any case. A parent might even be arrested because he committed a crime against the child. This may cause feelings of guilt and confusion about loyalty. Or the imprisonment of the parent brings relief, if the parent was violent, uncaring or abusing the child. 14

Most families of prisoners are distressed. For example by a decrease in finances, a decrease in treats, activities or celebrating special occasions. 15 It is important to limit the damage as much as possible. In prison, however, the parents become part of a culture that has a negative impact on their general social skills and maybe also on their parental responsibilities. This may affect the children too. So, to empower the children of imprisoned parents and to limit the damage of the separation, it is important to take care of (keep an eye on) the continuity of the relationships between the parent and the child. This continuity covers the situation before, during and after the imprisonment.


  1.  For more information, see R. SHAW, Prisoner’s Children; What are the Issues? Routledge, London, New York, 1992
  2.  VAN NIJNATTEN, o.c., 79.
  3. M.A. BERTRAND, ‘Comparing women’s prisons: Epistemological and methodological issues,’ in: D. NELKEN (ed.), Contrasting Criminal Justice; Getting from here to there, Ashgate, Darmouth, Aldershot, 2000, 128.
  4.  K. BROWN (ed.), No-one’s Ever Asked Me; Young People with a Prisoner in the Family, Federation of Prisoners’ Families Support Groups, Young People’s Project, London, 2001.
  5.  BROWN, o.c., 11.
  6.  CHRISTENSEN, o.c., 88.
  7.  BROWN, o.c., 32.
  8. CHRISTENSEN, o.c., 87.
  9.  BROWN, o.c., 22.
  10.  Report Social and Family Effects of Detention, o.c., 12.
  11. BROWN, o.c., 23.
  12.  BROWN, o.c., 23.
  13.  CHRISTENSEN, o.c., 85.
  14. SHAW, o.c., xvi; BROWN, o.c., 21.
  15. BROWN, o.c., 46

Ce poste est aussi disponible en: Français