The Centre for Social and Educational Research, DIT, released a report investigating the effects of parental imprisonment on children. Despite the fact that those directly affected by imprisonment far exceed the number of those who are actually serving custodial sentences the topic has to date received little formal attention in Ireland.
At present no records are kept in Ireland as to the parental status of prisoners, making it impossible to know how many children are affected by parental incarceration. However, two previous surveys conducted in Irish prisons (Carmody and McEvoy, 1996; O’Mahoney, 1997) indicated that between 60 and 72 percent of respondents were those in custody are parents.
Previous international research has shown that parental imprisonment can have a negative behavioural and financial impact on children, and fundamentally alter or even lead to a breakdown in parent-child relationships.
The aim of this report was to determine if the Irish situation was consistent with such. It was also hoped that it would provide a profile of the needs of children affected by parental imprisonment in Ireland, and develop recommendations that could be used to increase awareness of issues affecting children of prisoners such as child poverty .
Prisoners tend to come from economically deprived families and suffer from lower reported levels of health than those of the general population. This illustrates that children of prisoners may be at risk of disadvantage prior to imprisonment, a position which could be worsened further as a consequence of imprisonment, particularly if that parent was providing financial support. It is therefore essential that the children of prisoners are therefore given specific attention as a target group of the national anti poverty strategy.
A further finding is the limited information children receive concerning the specifics of their parents’ incarceration. It is necessary that support and counselling is provided for these children in relation to this, as well as to their primary care givers, in order to secure their well being.
The breakdown in contact between children and their parents that may arise when a parent is imprisoned may in fact constitute a breach of children’s rights as set out in Article 9(3) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 24(3) of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, and Article 18.5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is essential that the right of children to maintain contact with their parents needs to be respected throughout the duration of the prison sentence. This would also guarantee objective L of the National Children’s Strategy which states that children will have the opportunity to experience the qualities of family life, a right that may be affected by their perception of conditions in the visiting facilities.
The report finds that many prisoners are highly concerned by the effect that their imprisonment has upon their children, be it their relationship or general behaviour. There is an opportunity to utilize this concern and focus prisoners’ efforts at avoiding reoffending upon release for the sake of their children. This, however, can only be achieved if there is the prospect of the prisoner maintaining contact with the child and ensuring that the child is not left vulnerable to poverty and other further social harms. A way of guaranteeing the former is to improve visiting conditions within prisons and increase the level of parent-child contact, be it through enhanced visiting schemes or better access to phone calls.
It is also thought that imprisonment could provide an occasion to help parents to improve their parental skills classes through classes , augmented by prison staff with specific training provided to prison staff. This would increase the possibility of successful reintegration with their family, and therefore society as a whole, upon release.