Irish Penal Reform Trust

UK: The Impact of COVID-19 Prison Lockdowns on Children With a Parent in Prison

15th March 2021

A new report by Dr. Shona Minson at the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford draws on research undertaken during the first national lockdown and highlights issues faced by children whose parents were in prison during that time. Many children enjoyed regular and positive contact with their parent prior to prison lockdown. This loss of contact has negatively impacted children’s relationships with their imprisoned parents and their mental and physical health and wellbeing. The effects of such loss of contact and disruption to family relationships are likely to be long term and will affect family reunification and resettlement after prison. The report notes that other jurisdictions have managed the pandemic in ways which have not removed children’s meaningful relationships with their parent, through the use of more frequent and reliable video calls, face to face visits with physical contact for children and the implementation of early release schemes.


“By the time we get back into the prison the 7 month old is not going to have a clue who her dad is”


Findings

It is estimated that more than 300,000 children in England and Wales have a parent in prison each year, and many of these children have not had any face to face contact with their parent since early March 2020. This report is based on research exploring the experiences of more than 70 children whose parents were in prison across the UK during the first lockdown in 2020.

The research found that children experience confusing and complex emotions when face to face visits were stopped. Many children thought that their parent did not want to see them and the children began to blame themselves, with such anxiety being compounded by receiving fewer and shorter phone calls from their parent.

The research also found that without the re-enforcement of physical visits, young children started to not recognise their parents’ voice on the telephone. Moreover, older children found phone contact difficult and many caregivers reported children becoming detached from their imprisoned parent. This, in turn, was difficult for the imprisoned parent to deal with. Caregivers reported that the parent in prison was suffering from low mood, anxiety and depression which caused some parents to stop all contact with their children.

Video calls helped mitigate the situation. However, there were a number of difficulties with the system including several families not having the appropriate digital equipment or the know-how to operate it. Furthermore, video calling required participants to sit still, an obvious challenge for young children, and most prisoners could only make one call a month for 30 minutes.
 

Key recommendations

  1. Prisons should communicate directly with families about the situation within the prison and the options for contact with prisoners.
  2. The government should provide a clear and publicly communicated roadmap for the re-establishment of prison visits, and the lifting of restrictions within prisons at the same time as announcements are made about the rest of the community.
  3. Restricted prison regimes are detrimental to prisoners and their families, both in the short term as they move towards release and reintegration as a family.
  4. Increase the capacity for video calls to once a week for every prisoner with children.
  5. Improve the functionality of video calls, including removing limits on the number of children who can be present on a call.
  6. In cell telephones/secured mobile phones should be made available to every prisoner to enable frequent phone contact between children and parents.


In conclusion, all concerned with children’s wellbeing should now make every effort to reduce harms and avoid inflicting further harm on children. In 2017 and 2019, the Farmer Review of the men’s prison estate and the women’s prison estate recognised that “the importance of family ties is the golden thread” running through the prison system. However, despite this, the management of family contact over the past 12 months has not met the needs of children who have a parent in prison, nor properly upheld their right to family life or their right to contact with a parent from whom they have been separated.


Read the full report here.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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