The impact of prison lockdowns on prisoners’ children

Work with offenders on new research on the “collateral damage” of prison lockdowns

A new report published today by Dr Shona Minson from the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford tells the story of thousands of children in the UK who have not seen their parent in prison for a year.

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. At this stage, the short and longer-term impact of these restrictions on children and families remain far from clear, particularly as in many cases such restrictions are ongoing, and there is as yet no certain end point. Dr Minson says that it is alarmingly clear that the rapid cessation of in-person contact did not allow adults to prepare children for the separation nor were children given the opportunity to say goodbye to their parent. She points to a lack of relevant support or technology in place within the prison and no support for families on the outside to manage the changes.

The 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.

Key findings

The report found that children experienced confusing and complex emotions when face to face visits were stopped. Many children thought that their parent didn’t want to see them anymore, or maybe their parent no longer loved them. Children blamed themselves for this. This anxiety was compounded when, for a variety of reasons, children also received fewer or shorter phone calls from their parent. As we all know, physical contact between parent and child is of great importance to the development of relationships and both younger and older children missed hugs, touch, and seeing their parent. The study contains a number of verbatim quotes from children and parents affected by this separation and many are heart-rending:

“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.”

The research found that without the re-enforcement of face to face visits, young children did not seem to recognise or know their parent’s voice when they heard them speaking on the telephone. There was concern amongst all caregivers of babies and toddlers that the children were forgetting their parents and had lost any attachment they had formed with them. Without regular contact with their parents, babies and toddlers were forming strong attachments to their caregivers, which worried caregiver grandparents in particular.

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.

The deterioration of the parent and child relationship led to a number of changes in children’s physical and mental health and well-being which were experienced across the study cohort. Difficult behaviour, weight loss and difficulties eating and sleeping were common, as tragically, were increased anxiety, depression, self-harm and onset of eating disorders. Almost all the children involved in the study reported sadness and grief.

The study found that all video calls helped, there were a number of difficulties with the system including several families without the appropriate digital equipment or know-how to operate it, the video calling software required participants to sit still, an obvious challenge for young children, and most prisoners could make one call once a month for a total duration of 30 minutes.

Conclusion

The report finishes with a number of conclusions including better communication between prisons and families and more video and ordinary telephone calls.