Imprisonment has a considerable and often damaging impact on the family of the person receiving the sentence. Families must not only cope with the emotional distress caused by imprisonment, but also difficulties with housing and caring arrangements, lost incomes and perhaps also the financial and practical strains that are an inherent part of supporting a person in custody.

As many families affected by imprisonment already experience at least some degree of poverty or social marginality, the weight of these financial and caring burdens is often keenly felt.  However, my research involving both families affected by imprisonment and men and women in custody suggests that the impact of imprisonment goes beyond emotional disruptions to family life.  Rather, imprisonment undermines family relationships by limiting opportunities to engage in the everyday activities which fundamentally characterise and sustain family ties.

The impact of imprisonment goes beyond emotional disruptions to family life

While for many years families affected by imprisonment were largely invisible to researchers and policy-makers, we now know that imprisonment affects large numbers of families every year. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 27,000 children in Scotland have a parent in custody – more than experience a parental divorce.  These figures are estimates as there are no robust mechanisms in place to capture data on how many people are affected by the imprisonment of a family member, or their relationship to the person in custody.  Yet, that there are estimates of the number of children affected by parental imprisonment demonstrates that much of the research interest on families affected by imprisonment to date has largely focused on nuclear models of the family; one comprised of parents, a partner and children.

It is estimated that between 20,000 and 27,000 children in Scotland have a parent in custody – more than experience a parental divorce

However, family life has changed rapidly and recent years and social trends such as the increasing popularity of cohabitation, the legalisation of same-sex marriage, a growth of single person households, rising numbers of “blended” families including children from previous relationships, and increasing recognition for those who consider their friends to be family all point towards the decline of the traditional nuclear model. The boundaries of family life can therefore no longer be defined by blood or marriage.  Rather, it is the everyday activities which characterise family life, such as shared meals, traditions and routines which create and sustain family bonds.

The boundaries of family life can no longer be defined by blood or marriage

An appreciation of family as something we actively “do” is particularly helpful in seeking to understand the impact of imprisonment on families. This not only avoids imposing a model of family life which may not be relevant to these (or indeed any) families, but it also helps us to understand why seemingly unremarkable everyday and mundane elements of family life are given such significance by those affected by imprisonment. Indeed, participants spoke evocatively about how they treasured visits and home leaves not only because these are an opportunity to spend time with their family, but because this allows them to exchange family news, cuddle children and share cups of tea.

Brooke (visiting her partner on remand) : It is breaking me on the outside but I dinnae want to show him that, but and its breaking him and all [sighs] … open visits would be much better because at least you get a cuddle and ken, it cheers you up

Importantly, it is not only these acts in of themselves that help to maintain family ties. but also the meanings and traditions associated with them. This is reflected in the considerable value placed on “family days” or “children’s visits” within the prison, which allow participants to mark personally or culturally significant events, such as birthdays, Christmas or Eid. Families also found creative and imaginative strategies to continue such traditions and memories, even in the absence of visits. For example, those in custody spoke of decorating their cell with children’s drawings or photographs of their family, re-creating a sense of “home” through their own bed linen or watching the same television box sets or sporting events as those outside; while family members described using aftershave or items of clothing as a way of physically creating a connection to the person in prison.

Family members described using aftershave or items of clothing as a way of physically creating a connection to the person in prison

Recognising the diverse range of strategies for actively sustaining family life is important. By focusing on what families “do”, rather than simply relying on nuclear models of the family, there is a risk that elements of family life that fit easily within white, middle-class ideals (such as shared meals, homework or Christmas celebrations) will be afforded greater priority and recognition over those which do not (for example tattoos, a shared cigarette or other religious festivals). This is particularly problematic in the context of imprisonment, as the prison population continues to be disproportionately drawn from poor and marginalised communities. It is therefore essential that the voices of all families are heard when designing or improving initiatives to support families and family contact, to avoid a privileging of the needs experiences of families who fit most comfortably within white, middle-class narratives of the family.

For these relationships to survive, families must often invest large amounts of time, money and effort

Finally, understanding that family life is something we actively “do” raises new and important questions about the true impact and purpose of imprisonment. The disruption and curtailment of these everyday activities, which are an integral part of family relationships, are a very much deliberate part of imprisonment.  For these relationships to survive, families must often invest large amounts of time, money and effort.  In light of this, it can no longer be suggested that the considerable impact this form of punishment has on families is “unintended” or “collateral”.  We must therefore carefully consider in what circumstances these burdens can legitimately be imposed upon families, and the risks to justice and fairness when their voices are silenced and these pains of imprisonment go unrecognised.

Cara Jardine is a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde. Her PhD research examined what it means to be a family in the context of imprisonment, how these relationships are constructed and maintained, and how those affected by the imprisonment of a family member interact with the criminal justice system.

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