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Prison sentences do not just penalise those behind walls

In reality many of the relatives of prisoners are also subjected to harsh penalties by the State. Innocent people, who do not deserve to be punished, but who nevertheless live in the shadow of a prison. Why have we chosen a penal system which impacts so harshly on families?

Consider the following situation: you are a child and your dad disappears, from one day to the next. The State says he’s a criminal, he’s locked up, he’s a prisoner. You can’t think about anything else at school, you forget to do your homework, you get upset, feel angry and you may even feel guilty.

In order to see your dad, you have to book a visit. In order to book a visit, your mum has to fill out a form and be granted a visiting permit. There are also restrictions on where and how visits should take place and how many times you are allowed to meet.

Before visiting, you might have to travel a long way and spend the night at a hotel or stay with family, friends or at a hostel. On the appointed day you will have to pass through gates in the company of adults wearing uniform and go through a metal detector. You will also need to remember to take valid ID and the right papers.

Tough situation

This is the reality for children, and the next of kin, of prisoners in Norwegian prisons. You can read the rules which apply to visiting on Oslo Prison’s website:

  • Kinship is documented in connection with clearance,
  • We [the Prison] have received signed consent from the child’s mother/guardian,
  • During their first visit children must be accompanied by their mother/guardian. The mother/guardian will need to present his/her ID, but he/she does not need to be present during the actual visit. The same requirements also apply if the child/children is/are accompanied by someone else who is not his/her mother/guardian.

“The fact that the State actually metes out such harsh penalties to the families of prisoners is a big problem,” says Professor of Criminology at the University of Oslo Peter Scharff Smith.

From a visitation room in a Norwegian prison. Photo: Scanpix.

Stark figures

There are millions of children around the world who have a mother or father in prison. It is hard to say exactly how many children have parents, or next of kin, who are in prison. That would be more complicated. 

For example, the latest figures available in Norway are derived from a 2014 survey of prisoners’ living conditions. This survey provides figures showing the percentage of inmates (at a specific time) with children under the age of 18. This provides us with information about the type of relationship or welfare situation concerned, and how often visits and contact occur.

The survey also shows that 41% of inmates have experienced someone in their family being in prison. These figures do not include prisoners who are not resident in Norway and who are regarded as being foreigners. In this context we may be talking about quite specific issues, where prisoners’ families are often living far away.

Up until recently prison visiting rooms were not suitable for accommodating children’s needs. However, in recent years there have been huge developments in this respect and most prisons in Scandinavia now have “child-friendly visiting rooms”.

Surveys conducted in various countries indicate that around one in two prisoners has an average of two children, i.e. approx. one child per prisoner. In Norway it has been estimated that 6,000 - 9,000 children experience having a parent in prison every year. In Denmark, research conducted on national statistical records shows that 5-6% of all children born in the same year experience having a parent in prison during the course of their childhood. There is no systematic data collected on children of prisoners in the UK, but it is estimated that as many as 200,000 might experience parental imprisonment each year.

Children are also just one group of relatives. This group also encompasses girlfriends/boyfriends, partners, spouses, parents, siblings, stepparents and step-siblings. Next of kin and family come in many different guises.

Prison sentences do not just penalise those behind walls

Professor Smith and Associate Professor Rachel Condry say that the experiences of prisoners’ children, partners, and parents did not really become properly apparent on the research agenda until the 2000s. It is possible that the impact of prison on families becomes particularly apparent when we look at the conditions which concern visits in Norwegian and foreign prisons. Professor Smith, who has also conducted research on historical developments in prisons, says that although there are considerable global variations in this respect, there have been improvements.

“In the past the ideal situation involved keeping prisoners as isolated as possible. For example, in Denmark in 1919, prisoners were often only allowed to meet their families for 15 minutes, four times per year. Today families can usually visit prisoners for 1 hour or more, once a week,” says Professor Smith. However, there are also other “invisible” consequences which probably apply more to the outside world.

“So how do families experience prison sentences?”

“The consequences are many and diverse. Prison sentences can result in financial problems for families, involving not just the loss of income and someone to share the expenses with. Even being able to afford visiting a prison can be a challenge. They may experience feeling stigmatised, children may experience bullying, and many struggle with feelings of shame and mental problems as a result of the burden of having someone they love serving a sentence.”

Professor Peter Smith Photo: UoO.

“Why the State wants to continue pursuing a form of punishment which can ruin families is a paradox, “says Professor Smith. “While families are otherwise regarded as being an important part of our “social glue”, it is strange that modern society has chosen a punitive form which in many situations undermines family opportunities,” he says.

Prison sentences beneficial for families

“It is also important to remember that sometimes prison sentences can also be beneficial for families,” says Professor Smith. “For example, in situations where a partner or child has been abused or if drugs and/or alcohol are involved. However, even in such cases prison sentences are not necessarily beneficial.” 

“They are often simply a temporary solution and, for example, extra resources are not given to children who “lose” a parent or a carer with whom they have a very complicated relationship and who is not necessarily replaced. Prison sentences do not just affect people who have few resources in the first place. This also applies to families, who then have an extra burden to deal with.” 

Professor Rachel Condry.
Photo: Oxford

That burden can be considerable. Associate Professor Condry says:

“Every aspect of the lives of families of prisoners can be turned upside down. They are seriously affected by the sentence given to their relative, yet they themselves are legally innocent.”

Prisons, penalties and families

Professor Smith and Associate Professor Condry from the University of Oxford have spent many years working on prisoners’ families research. Theyhave jointly edited an anthology in an attempt to collate knowledge about research in the field, and to uncover shortcomings in previous prison studies which have failed to address the impact of prison sentences on next of kin. 

How do prison sentences affect prisoners’ families? Photo: Shutterbox.

Professor Smith says: “The aim of our anthology has been to discuss questions such as the legitimacy of prison sentences, human rights and social exclusion. We have tried to acquire a wider understanding of the interplay which occurs between prison sentences, prisoners’ families and society at large. What should be the meaning - and the legitimacy - of sentences in democratic societies? How do prison sentences affect prisoners’ families? How can this best be understood and achieved in a fair way? What types of differences and exclusion mechanisms do prisoners’ families experience? What is considered to be a fair punishment from the point of view of families? What experiences do families have of the criminal system? Do they feel that their needs are met and respected by the authorities?”

“Prison sentences are not just about the rights and obligations of prisoners, but those of their families outside the prison,” conclude Professors Smith and Condry.

By Per Jørgen Ystehede, Jorunn Kanestrøm
Published Dec. 10, 2018 10:26 AM - Last modified Mar. 8, 2022 9:48 AM