The prisoners are certainly being punished but the families are really being punished as well
Cara, Mum to 3 children, partner in prison
This month sees the annual European campaign ‘Not my crime, not my sentence’ focusing on the children across Europe who have a parent in prison. This campaign organised by Network Cope is an attempt to counter the invisibility of this group of children.
It is now the 11th week since prisons in England and Wales stopped social visits. It is at least 11 weeks since any of the 200 – 300,000 children with a parent in prison have been able to see their parent or the 711 children who themselves are held in detention have seen anyone outside of the prison. It is 11 weeks since the estimated 70-90 pregnant women in prison have been visited by anyone. It is 11 weeks since the unknown number of children in mother and baby units in prisons have seen any family members outside of the prison.
On the 2nd June HMPPS published the Covid-19: National Framework for Prison Regimes and Services– setting out ‘how we will take decisions about easing corona virus-related restrictions in prisons’. It sets out the ways in which regimes may be changed but it gives no timings. Looking through the twitter comments which followed its publication, it seems that many families affected by it believe it is promising no real change, and is intended to distract prisoners and families from the fact that 11 weeks on they are living within a severely restricted regime with no fixed end point. It is widely accepted that the spread of corona virus in prisons has been limited by the severe regime that has been imposed in prisons (many prisoners are experiencing 23 or even 23 1/2 hour lockup each day). This regime has been necessary because the numbers in the prisons are such that education, association, work and visits can’t take place in a safe way with social distancing. From the outset the government has been urged to reduce prison numbers , as so many other countries have done, but a clear political decision has been made not to do so.
I would suggest that it is at this point that the decision to maintain prison numbers will become increasingly problematic for many reasons but not least because of the inability of prisons to safely manage visits for children with their parents. Yesterday Andrea Albutt the Chair of the Prison Governors’ Association said at a seminar organised by the University of Cambridge, that they cannot safely provide visits in overcrowded prisons.
Prisoners and their families are right to want to visits with each other and until the prison population is reduced this will remain a dangerous and in many places impossible task. Last time I wrote about the need for children to see their parents I think some readers assumed that I was unaware of how complex it would be to make safe arrangements for prison visits. I am absolutely aware of how complex it is, and I am also clear that these difficulties are the result of a criminal justice system which has overused prisons, and a government who are so determined to look tough on crime that they are currently unwilling to take the sensible step of reducing the prison population. Those circumstances do not negate the fact that children have a right to family life (Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998); a right that has currently been removed from children with a parent in prison, with insufficient resource applied by the government to mitigate or reduce that loss.
Since I last posted two weeks ago, when video visits had been promised by HMPPS, 20 prisons out of 117 now have the facility to offer video calls to prisoners. 97 prisons do not have the facility to offer video calls. The Northern Ireland Prison Service got video calls up and running in their 3 prisons within 2 weeks of lockdown.
I’ve written about the risks to unborn children of pregnancy in prison. I’ve written about the importance of contact between children and their parent in prison. I’m not going to repeat myself but if you’re interested in reading more click on the links. If you want to read more about children who themselves are detained in prison I suggest you follow Dr Laura Janes on twitter (@LauraJanes_UK) , but you might be interested and appalled to know that of the 711 children currently in prison 1 in 3 are on remand (they haven’t yet been found guilty of a crime) and around half are black, asian or minority ethnic.
I’m currently collecting data from adults, parents, grandparents, step-parents, who are looking after a child who has a parent in prison. I’ve done this by way of an online anonymous survey and through interviews. I hope to gather this data to present to the Human Rights Committee in response to its call for evidence about how the government’s response to the pandemic has affected human rights. I also hope to put it together as some kind of policy report. So can I encourage you, if you are the carer for a child whose parent is prison, please do complete the survey or get in touch with me for an interview so that we together we can work to keep the needs and rights of these children in public view.
This week as I’ve been transcribing the interviews I’ve felt overwhelmed by the awfulness of children’s experiences at this time. Not only are they coping with the challenges of lockdown, the closing of schools (and now the partial re-opening), the withdrawal of many support services, the isolation and the fear, or reality for some, of becoming ill with corona virus, but they have also without any warning been deprived of meaningful relationship with their parent. It is important that we listen to them and to their parents, so I’m ending with an account from a mum, written specially for this blog.
The impact this has had on my children is something that I will as a mum never forget. The hurt my children deal with daily, the questions they ask, ‘when can I see my dad?’, ‘will my dad get covid?’, ‘will my dad be ok mum?’. I can’t answer. Not one of them. As a mum I feel helpless listening to my children cry, holding them at night when they want to be held by their dad. They kiss his picture every night not knowing when they will get their next real kiss or cuddle. My disabled boy is continuing to lose weight fast, not wanting to eat, can’t express how he feels. All he says is ‘Dad, my Dad’. It’s heartbreaking. If my boy losses his fight he will have been without contact for 10 weeks without him touching or seeing daddy’s face. How can this be right? He should be able to touch and smell his daddy and know he’s not left him. My children feel like they are serving the sentence. Why are my children being put though this, why are they being punished for their dad’s mistake? Something needs to happen before my children suffer any more. My children are going to end up with mental health issues if it’s up to this government, a government that does not care about children whose parents are in prison. Shouldn’t we be showing these children we care before these children are the next one’s in prison down to being let down and ending up with mental health issues?
So powerful Shona. Keep revealing these truths to us- we need voices like yours.