On or around 13 March 2020, prisons in the UK moved to restricted regimes, which included a ban on all social visits. Prison lockdowns were widespread in 2020 and continue in 2021. With face-to-face visits banned in spite of a few prisons opening doors in summer of 2020, thousands of children in the UK have not seen their parent in prison for a year.
There has been a cost.
Although (at this stage) any understanding of both the short and longer-term impact of the aforementioned restrictions on children and families is limited, new research by Dr Shona Minson from the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University suggests that loss of contact has negatively impacted children’s relationships with their imprisoned parents, taking a toll on their mental and physical health and wellbeing.
Participants in Dr Minson’s study are from counties in England, Scotland and Wales, the majority of which live below the poverty line (aligning with the well-established links between poverty and imprisonment); a small percentage of children concerned have a mother in prison and the majority, a father.
Prior to the prison lockdown in March 2020, 96% of the children represented in the research enjoyed regular and frequent contact with their imprisoned parent, with almost two thirds (61%) visiting their parent at least once each week.
Lack of contact during and post-lockdown has had a significant impact on these children and their families.
Research found that many children did not understand why contact stopped and thought that their parent did not want to see them anymore; some children blamed themselves and some even believed that their parent no longer loved them. This anxiety was compounded when children also received fewer or shorter phone calls from their parent (for reasons relating to: cost, timing and poor sound quality of calls or children being unable to engage because of age or disability).
Without the re-enforcement of face-to-face visits, young children did not seem to recognise or know their parent’s voice when speaking on the telephone. There was concern amongst all caregivers of babies and toddlers that children were forgetting their parents and had lost any attachment they had formed with them prior to lockdown.
My child recently lost his first tooth. He wanted to show his dad the gap in his mouth and cried knowing he can’t, so I said I would send a photo to his dad. And he said, ‘No mummy, I want him to see it when I sit on his knee and then he can really see’.
Caregiver grandparents were particularly worried about the fact that, without regular contact with their parents, younger grandchildren were forming strong attachments to them in place of their parents.
Older children found phone contact difficult and many caregivers reported children becoming detached from their imprisoned parent. This in turn was difficult for the parent in prison to deal with. Many caregivers reported that the parent in prison was suffering from low mood, anxiety or depression, and they found their children’s distress almost too much to bear. In some instances, this caused parents to stop all contact with their children, which of course compounded and amplified the children’s distress.
Children’s anxiety about their imprisoned parent was heightened due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and caregivers reported children asking them questions such as: ‘Will my Dad die? Do they have enough food? What can’t he facetime? Does he still love me? Did I do something wrong? When will we see each other?’.
Children were described as displaying anger and aggression alongside verbal and physical abuse of other children and adults in their household. Some became quiet and withdrawn, and several were described as being uncharacteristically ‘clingy’ with their caregiver. Some had begun to suffer from enuresis and soiling. Others were destructive, damaging property.
Whilst the situation seems bleak, there is hope!
The pandemic is not over and it is likely that prisons will continue to use restricted regimes to reduce the spread of Covid-19 within their populations. Yet it is not too late for the UK to make changes to its management of prison visits and communication for prisoners with their families in order to mitigate the harms which have been done to children in the past 12 months.
For a full list of recommendations as well as Dr Minson’s research report, CLICK HERE.
Kids Matter is a programme that engages with families and young children before crisis point – it strengthens families by giving mums and dads the tools to be competent, confident parents or caregivers. To get involved, as a volunteer or by financially supporting our programme, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org