Children make more than 500,000 prison visits every year but we know “next to nothing” about the impact that they have, it has been warned.
The figure has been revealed because of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests made to around 120 public prisons in England and Wales.
A briefing from Barnardo’s, the charity behind the research, has this week warned of a “policy black hole”, with the needs of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children going unnoticed.
The FoI responses show that, in 2013, children made an average of almost 10,000 prison visits a week – or 1,387 per day – with around 18,000 children visiting a prison once a month on average.
The figures show a total number of visits by children across the year of 506,694 – although the real number is certain to be higher as the FoI requests did not cover 14 private prisons in operation across England and Wales.
It is estimated that there are 200,000 children of prisoners in England and Wales, meaning that, on average, most schools will have at least one child with a family member in prison.
However, there are no formal records of who these children are, or formal mechanisms to ensure that their wellbeing is considered in prison policy-making.
Barnardo’s runs 13 services across England and Wales to support children with a parent in prison and its briefing paper, entitled Just Visiting, quotes 2002 Cabinet Office research showing that parental imprisonment can damage educational attainment and emotional development, as well as cause mental health and behavioural problems. The same research found that 65 per cent of boys with a convicted father will go on to offend themselves.
The briefing paper states: “The experience (of having a parent in prison) has a significant impact on these children’s life chances: they are twice as likely as other children to experience mental health problems, more likely to be excluded, and three times more likely to be involved in offending activity themselves.”
Barnardo’s also warns that being separated from a parent can lead to children being stigmatised, bullied and isolated and that the actual process of visiting a prison can be traumatising for many young people.
The paper continues: “We know that many children feel an acute sense of loss and grief when a parent is incarcerated but do not get the support they need. Many do not seek support due to the stigma of having a parent in prison.
“Children and families often tell us about their negative experiences when visiting a family member in prison. This is backed by research, which has shown that children can find visiting upsetting and frightening, and searches daunting – particularly the first few times they experience these.”
One parent from Devon whose husband spent time in jail told Barnardo’s: “You walk through the actual prison and they’re all shouting out of the windows, and the main door of A wing is open so all the prisoners congregate downstairs playing pool and stuff and they’re all shouting at you as you walk past.
“It’s quite a frightening experience for an adult so for a child I think it’s very intimidating and scary to have to go through.”
The briefing paper also highlights the financial implications for families, with average prison visits costing as much as £175 per month. On top of this, the loss of the prisoner’s earnings average £6,200 over a six month period.
The paper adds: “While government provides financial assistance to help families struggling with the cost of visiting, this is often not known about, can be difficult to claim, and does not provide for all of the associated costs of travelling long distances.
“One mother of four told us that her 200-mile journeys to prison costing £200 had been crippling the family finances for six months. Only later did someone tell them that they could apply for government funding for help.”
Barnardo’s is now calling for a national action plan to stretch “from the point of sentencing to the parent’s release from prison”. It says that, at a minimum, the plan should include:
Appointing a government minister with responsibility for children of prisoners in England.
Ensuring courts routinely ask about offenders’ children when they are sentenced to prison.
A better understanding of the nature and scale of child prison visits.
More research into the culture and practices surrounding them.
Barnardo’s CEO, Javed Khan, said: “Children are the forgotten victims of the prison system. Every week thousands of innocent children pay the price for crimes they did not commit.
“These children may spend tiring hours travelling to a prison and then several more hours stuck inside waiting to see their dad or other relative. They may be met by frightening guards and sniffer dogs and subjected to a ‘rub down’ or more detailed body search.
“Children of prisoners have done nothing wrong and do not deserve punishment for their parent’s crimes. The distress of a prison visit can be long-lasting; a child should not be left to pick up the pieces on their own. Prisoners’ children are completely overlooked. We want to see these children brought out of the shadows and given the support they need.”
Barnardo’s and the Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group run the Information Hub on Offenders’ Families with Children for Professionals, a service for professionals working with children of prisoners. Visit www.i-hop.org.uk