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Breaking The Chains

by Chris Corlett

Along with the US and Australia, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the world. At any one time there are at least 2000 dads and 3000 children forcibly separated from each other by the justice system.

With a groundswell of public opinion that calls for longer and tougher prison terms, even more kids are likely to lose their dads to the world behind bars in future.

Chris Corlett investigated what it all means, and whether we should even worry about fathers that are scoundrels.

There are approximately six thousand people in prison in New Zealand today. Nearly all of them(ninety six percent) are men and of these, over one in three were living with at least one dependent child prior to being imprisoned. Eleven percent of them were living with three children or more.

At any one time in New Zealand, there at least two thousand dads, and three thousand children, forcibly separated from each other by the criminal justice system. And this figure is rising. Over the past five years, the prison population has grown at a rate of over five percent, and is forecast to continue to grow over the next ten years at least three percent.

Unfortunately these statistics, published by the Department for Corrections, take no account of those prison inmates who didn’t live with their children prior to sentencing, but still play an important role in their lives through regular contact.

It would probably not be exaggerating to suggest that these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. In one region of the United States it was found that nearly two thirds of prison inmates were also fathers. It is probable that ,likewise, the numbers of prison inmates in New Zealand who are also fathers are in the majority.

This makes grim reading for anyone who recognises the importance of fatherhood in respect of raising well adjusted children. There are an awful lot of children who are being prevented from being with their dads by the system.

The emotional aspects of this situation are heart breaking enough. But the sadness of family separation is not the only issue. Equally significantly, there is clear evidence that children whose fathers have been in prison are more likely to end up in jail themselves somewhere along the line.

Whether to become a criminal and expose oneself to the possibility of a prison sentence is not simply a matter of choice. There are many factors at play; economic, cultural and, especially, social.

People become criminals because it’s the only way they know. And perhaps the key factor in the shaping of a criminal personality is an offender’s own upbringing.

One North American study reported that children with an incarcerated parent are four times more likely to become convicted criminals themselves than children from the same socio-economic background but with parents at home. British research found that fifty nine percent of boys with a convicted parent go on to be convicted themselves by the age of thirty two.

It’s a vicious cycle: the more men we send to prison, the more criminals we are potentially creating.

It seems obvious that somehow we have got to break this chain. The solution is not as simple as ceasing to imprison anyone who happens to be a father. Each prisoner is in prison due to a particular and unique set of circumstances.

No doubt there are many in prison that ought not to be there, either because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, or because they pose no continuing threat to society.

But there are also many who should. Prisons are sometimes a necessary evil; it’s right that society should be able to protect itself from people who pose a threat to others. Which creates the situation where, in the short term, potential victims are rightly protected, but where, in the long term, more offenders are being created.

It’s a Catch 22 in every sense. How do we protect society from criminal acts, and at the same time break the chain of intergenerational offending?

Perhaps not surprisingly, research into the issues raised by the imprisonment of fathers has been sparse. There has been considerable research into the issue of imprisoned mothers, but fathers have been largely ignored, which seems to support the prevailing view that mothers are the only significant caregivers in a family, with fathers playing a secondary role.

Prior to the 1999 General Election, Father & Child spoke to the mainstream political parties and posed a number of policy-related questions in relation to fathering. In respect of the issue of fathers who are in prison, Labour claimed to be unhappy with the provisions for imprisoned fathers which were in place at that time, and asserted that family centres attached to prisons would be a good idea.

The Alliance Party recognised that “the environment in which children have to visit their father is not conducive to good relationships and this needs to be addressed”.

The current government is obviously aware of the issues. But there is precious little evidence that anything is being done about it. The family centres have not eventuated. There are not even specific times at which children can visit their fathers, other than the ordinary visiting times.

For families, where Dad is in prison, a number of emotional and practical problems arise as a result. In general, there is the financial burden caused by the removal of one source of income, and frequently the main one.

This may be exacerbated by the reduced opportunity for the remaining caregiver to be able to work, because of the time and effort required to be a single parent. Imprisoned dads also report considerable anxiety caused by worrying whether his family, on the outside, is coping with his absence.

Then there is the issue of shame an inmate may experience, both for the reason that he finds himself in prison and also for the fact that he is not there for his family, and has let them down. All of the above may be compounded by the lack of resources and finances available to a prisoner, making it difficult to afford to send presents and cards, or make phone calls.

At present, children can only visit their dads during ordinary prison visiting times (unless there is a specific reason). This means that such visits take place in communal areas of the prison along with other visitors.

One prison staff member reported that all manner of activities can take place during such visits, including open sexual acts and exchange of illicit substances.

This cannot be an appropriate setting for children to visit their fathers, even if such occurrences are rare. One father, now released, said that, during his prison sentence, he was reluctant for his children to visit him in prison exactly because of such occurrences.

Children face particular problems in trying to cope with their father’s absence. Not the least is the issue of stigma. Even children whose fathers have died are frequently presented with a positive image of him, which provides support and comfort.

But the children of imprisoned fathers suffer shame and damaged self-esteem because of where their Dad is and why he is there. Some children are bullied or ostracised by their peers because of it. Many more are ashamed to talk about or mention their dad because of it.

Prisoners’ children may also be reluctant to talk about their Dad for fear of appearing needy or weak, or of upsetting mum.

And they may be lied to about their fathers’ absence or circumstances, which may lead them to destructive fantasies and mistrust towards those who have lied to them, perhaps even the father himself as well as other close family members.

What’s more, a study in the United Kingdom reported that thirty percent of prisoners’ children have significant health problems. This compares to ten percent of children in the general population.

What is being done about it?

Knowing that having dad in prison is not good for children, it would make sense to place greater emphasis on ensuring that a prison sentence is the appropriate way to deal with an offender who is also a father.

The Sentencing Act 2002 states that “in sentencing or dealing with an offender the court must take into account an offender’s personal, family, or whanau background when imposing a sentence with a partly or wholly rehabilitative purpose”.

This would seem to indicate that, except where sentences of preventative detention are being imposed, courts have a duty to consider the effects on an inmate’s children that a custodial sentence would have. Whether courts do take such factors into consideration is doubtful. If they did, why are more and more fathers being sent to prison?

Adrienne Burgess, author of “Fatherhood Reclaimed” and one of the world’s leading experts on policy issues for fathers, puts it like this:”The father, whether absent or present, has powerful meaning to every child. We must accept the substantial relationships many children have with their imprisoned fathers and the support Dad previously provided.

These are the first steps to incarcerating fathers only “in extremis”. To providing partners with replacement support, and to educating parents about handling children’s feelings and questions.”

Home detention is one alternative to prison, which was introduced in New Zealand in 1999. Sentencing judges may allow offenders sentenced to two years or less to apply to serve their sentence this way.

Eligible offenders are supervised through electronic and physical surveillance. One of its aims, aside from the obvious cut in the costs of imprisonment, is to “provide an alternative to imprisonment for offenders with special needs, including those with young children, and to assist such offenders to maintain family relationships and responsibilities.”

The Department for Corrections certainly recognises the need for contact between imprisoned Dads and their families.

The Public Prison Service National Policy Standard states that “if it does not pose a threat to the safety of the public every inmate must be encouraged and assisted to maintain or establish relationships with their family/whanau to assist their wellbeing, and to promote the inmate’s effective reintegration into society”.

There are some positive programmes taking place in New Zealand prison’s to address some of these issues. The Department for Corrections offers a Parenting Skills Course to inmates, who are caregivers to children under the age of sixteen.

The course involves 32 hours of course time over a four week period, and addresses all aspects of parenting, including matters of routine care: feeding, clothing, illness etc. It also offers advice on where to seek help with parenting in the community.

The course considers how the relationship between a child’s parents can impact upon the child, and issues surrounding the self-esteem of children. At present there are 21 such courses being run throughout New Zealand prisons, and sometimes attendance is made mandatory as a parole condition.

In addition to programmes run within the prison setting, welfare organisations provide valuable support and assistance to inmates and their families. The Prisoner Aid and Rehabilitation Service (PARS) assists family members to visit inmates, and Prison Inmates Loved Ones Linked As One to Renew Strength (better known as PILLARS) runs a scheme called Te Atea (Challenge to Change), which aims to reduce reoffending within families.

These are all positive initiatives; however they do not address the important issue of visiting places and times. Another UK study found that children respond far more positively to their dads’ situations when there are specific facilities available for when they visit. More family visiting centres should be built, and fathers need specific and separate times and opportunities to see their children.

The Department for Corrections informs Father and Child that it is progressively updating or replacing older visiting facilities. It states that there are visiting facilities for families at all prison sites, though they “vary in age and amenity”. At present, as far as Father and Child has been able to ascertain, family visits take place at the same time as ordinary visits, in the same main areas.

However, new prisons, such as the facility currently under construction in Northland, are to have purpose built family visiting areas.

Furthermore, a number of older prison facilities have had new facilities added. The Department acknowledges that the goal of visiting areas is to create a better environment, with less obtrusive surveillance, and improved play areas for children.

The imprisonment of fathers, and the subsequent effect on their children, is a complex and emotional problem, and there is no easy solution to it. There are encouraging signs that the criminal justice system, along with attitudes of society in general, is moving in the right direction. But on the other had there is no sign that intergenerational crime rates are falling.

Perhaps what is needed is more commitment to addressing the problem – and more spending. Greater recognition of an offender’s fatherhood should occur during the sentencing process, and more use should be made of non-custodial options.

Dr Catherine Dennison, writing in the UK, sums the situation up. “For young men fathering a child is something they are proud of, it makes them feel they achieved something. Becoming a father can prove to be an opportunity to rethink the direction of their lives.

The challenge for policy makers and practitioners is, therefore, to encourage and enable these young fathers to have positive input into their child’s life.”

Helping children to turn away from crime may take effort, persistence and money. But it would be worth it, for the wellbeing and happiness of us all. What better investment could we make?

Thanks to Paul Monk, Regional Manager of the South Island Prison Service for information provided.

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