When the State Breaks Up Families

Prison Bars

I had a nightmare recently, where my husband and I were both sent to prison – separate prisons. I don’t remember what we were convicted of or whether we’d done it. I just remember the horror of realising that our punishment was the break-up of our family. How appalling.

I did a criminology paper at varsity, which I’m aware doesn’t make me any kind of expert. But it gave me a window into the world of evidence-based criminal policy that continued in my law degree. In six years of university study, I didn’t come across any experts who thought that prison was a sensible way to deal with offenders.

It’s just an historical solution, and now also a strangely populist one. Political parties routinely run – and win – on ‘law and order’ policy platforms, based on zero evidence of what works or is good for society.

A prison sentence, we’re told in law school, serves:

  1. as a deterrent (so the thought of prison will cause a would-be burglar or thug to think twice about embarking on a life of crime)
  2. as a means of rehabilitation (tie them down and teach them to be better people)
  3. as punishment (which is why this kind of story is written at least annually)
  4. to keep the public safe

Well, you can see what I think of that list. Again, I’m not pretending to be an expert, so feel free to disagree and to offer your thoughts below. But I can’t be anything but scornful of a system that is so outdated as to be irrational.

One by one, then:

  1. There’s little evidence that the thought of prison deters people from offending (though the deterrent effect is different depending on the type of offence and the country). The causes of crime are manifold, but you can guess that well-reasoned decision-making isn’t high on the list.
  2. Rehabilitation is of course a great idea, and is a guiding principle of the Corrections Act 2004. Whether it’s best done when someone is locked up with a bunch of other offenders is a big question though, don’t you think?
  3. It’s pretty natural to want revenge and to want to see an offender suffer for what they’ve done. The problem with state-sponsored revenge is that society suffers too. Unless we adopt capital punishment or US-style life sentences, these people are going to come out of prison one day. The more you make them suffer inside, not to mention meet a bunch of other offenders, the more likely they are to reoffend, which doesn’t suit any of us.
    Prison also doesn’t offer any opportunity for restitution. A victim knows an offender is locked up, but that doesn’t mean any stolen property is recovered or paid back, for instance.
  4. This is the only good reason for a prison, in my view. For the very few offenders who are assessed as being a real danger to the community, well, sure, they have to go somewhere, preferably where they’ll be treated and helped to become safe. But that’s a pretty tiny number. You could shut down all but one of the prisons in the country if you admitted that this was the point of them.

Back to my nightmare.

The article I picked from the top of the Google results (I searched for ‘prison luxury’ and got 28,000 news hits) for the link above is about moves to make prisons in New Zealand and the United Kingdom more ‘family-friendly’.

In the article, the Howard League for Penal Reform quotes research showing that prisoners who maintain family bonds are less likely to reoffend when released. The rent-a-quote Sensible Sentencing Trust have their say on this:

However, the Sensible Sentencing Trust says prisoners should not be given the luxury of spending time with their children.

Spokesperson Ruth Money said prisoners had, on average, nine convictions before they were sent to jail where they should not be given the right to spend time with their families.

Money said prison exists to punish criminals not to help them rehabilitate.

Ruth Money’s wrong, according to New Zealand law, thank goodness. According to the Corrections Act 2004, section 5(1), ‘The purpose of the corrections system is to improve public safety and contribute to the maintenance of a just society’. Effective rehabilitation is absolutely vital for public safety, given that most prisoners get out at some point.

But one huge thing pro-prison people are missing is the appalling and well-researched effect of imprisonment on those outside the gates. The children of prisoners are an extremely vulnerable group, whose internationally recognised rights are systematically abused and ignored and whose futures are put at risk by the break-up of their families.

Children of prisoners in Santa Martha prison, Mexico, from a photoessay by Caroline Bennett.

Children of prisoners in Santa Martha prison, Mexico, from a photoessay by Caroline Bennett, used with kind permission.

Here are some extracts from a recent submission by Rethinking Crime and Punishment and JustSpeak on the recent Green Paper on Vulnerable Children. This is why prison is a topic for a parenting blog:

The impact of the imprisonment of parents on their children is not well understood, but parental imprisonment is considered a risk factor for poor educational performance, behavioural issues, criminal offending, mental health issues, substance abuse and unemployment (Murray and Farrington, 2008; Gordon and MacGibbon, 2011).

In order to prevent such vulnerabilities our criminal justice, and particularly penal, system needs to consider the impact of the separation of whānau, stigmatisation, and socio-economic pressure that results from incarceration. Where children are involved the use of community sentences, financial and parenting assistance, and more family-friendly prisons should be prioritised…

As Hon. Dr. Pita Sharples states “Our(Māori) kids grow up knowing the Police, the Courts and knowing their relations are in jail. That is part of our life, our culture today” (Sharples, 1995). Considering the adverse and marginalising impact imprisonment and involvement with the criminal justice system has on Māori communities and their children, as documented in Te Puni Kōkiriʼs report, this should be of significant concern….

[T]he families surveyed for this report noted the detrimental impact of the lack of the prisoners support and resources, the family disruption, and the financial strain resulting from the remaining carer having to stop working to care for the children and costs associated with the prisoner (Gordon and MacGibbon, 2011).

I’ll say. If governments won’t be convinced by evidence, perhaps it’s an exercise of imagination that may be required – on the part of voters.

A recent British drama looks at the life of a prisoner’s family. Did any of you see it?

If not, perhaps you could imagine your own nightmare. What if a parent you know was imprisoned? What would happen to that family? How would they cope financially? Socially? In three years’ time, what do you think the state of their family life would be? Their health? The behaviour and happiness of the kids?

Sesame Street’s online toolkit section has just introduced a new muppet, Alex, whose dad is in jail. This is aimed at the one in 28 American kids who have parents in prison. One for every classroom in the country.

Whatever your ideology about prisons, perhaps we can agree on practicalities. The practice of imprisoning large numbers of offenders doesn’t necessarily reduce crime, especially if (as in New Zealand) most offenders are released at some point. It probably increases it, if anything. Released offenders are stigmatised, struggle to get jobs and housing, and have broken social and family relationships – and that’s a recipe for reoffending.

Prison isn’t doing what we want. More than that, it’s harming thousands of children who are not (yet) convicted criminals. It’s state-sponsored family break-up. Let’s move on, shall we?

You can keep up with Sacraparental via Facebook for daily snippets, Twitter for general ranting and raving and Pinterest for all sorts.

I have a whole category of rants, and you might also be interested in these posts:

Two Ideas for Post-Election Action

Parenting as Professional Development

16 Reasons to get rid of the Sole Parent Work Test

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small

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0 comments on “When the State Breaks Up Families”

  1. andrew Reply

    Looking at the theocracy of OT Israel, God said that he required the blood of men to be shed for murder – not a state revenge or an act of violence by the executioner but a level of forfeiture to indicate the sanctity of life. they also had the cities of refuge where you could live out your life (presumably with your family) without fear of vigilante action, and you had restitution for property crimes. after the penalty was paid i don’t recall there being any ongoing shame applied formally, although it probably happened informally.

    the cities of refuge were probably the closest thing to prison.

    How do we protect “innocent” members of society from criminals who steal, assault and commit far worse crimes? what we are doing at the moment might not be working, but people get many wake up calls before they are sent behind bars.

    where does personal responsibility for the outcomes of the actions taken and the impact this has upon your family come into the equation?

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Hi Andrew,

      I guess my main point (though I raise several) is that whatever we do with offenders, we shouldn’t further harm their children. Prisoners’ children are hugely vulnerable and many (though of course not all) of them would have better lives if their parents were around.

      Breaking up families is counter-productive if our aim is a better, stronger society.

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