Supporting Children’s Relationship with Parents in Prison

Imprisonment of a family member is a difficult time for families of that there is no doubt.  Along with the emotional impact, e.g. fear, anxiety, anger, embarrassment, guilt, described in virtually all research done on this subject, there is the added challenge of maintaining relationships with families on the outside – and in particular the fostering of a meaningful relationship between the imprisoned parent and his/her children.

This short article will, focus on the male prisoner.  The culture in which we live largely determines people’s expectations of men and women, and indeed men’s and women’s expectations of themselves.  Because of such expectations, continuation of and development of relationships between a mother who is in prison and her children would need to be the subject of a separate article.

Fostering a meaningful relationship between Dad and children is a central aspect of the work of the Bedford Row Family Project.  The reason for this is that an overwhelming amount of research shows that imprisonment of Dad increases the chances of one or more of his children ending up in prison too.  However research also shows that good contact between Dad and children decreases the chances that Dad will go back to prison after release.

But there is an oft-debated question here!

Is it helpful for children to be brought regularly into what is often a harsh environment (despite the best efforts of all concerned) to see their Dad, to maintain and even build on the relationship?  Or would it be better to keep children away altogether to lessen the chance that they will be ‘socialised’ into the world of imprisonment, and see it as the norm for themselves and their families?

At Bedford Row, we believe that it is right and proper, and very good for sustaining relationships, that children see their Dad regularly if that is their choice, and if it is deemed by responsible adults who are caring for the child that it is safe, healthy and secure.  We also believe that the higher the quality of the emotional element of the visit, (that, ideally takes place in a warm, friendly and non-threatening physical environment), the better the long term outcome for the children.  Parenting does not come to a halt when a parent is imprisoned, but we believe from our long experience in supporting families that there may often be substantial emotional blocks that may prevent Dad accessing feelings of love, acceptance and sense of self-worth.  If these blocks can be removed, the actual skills, (or nuts and bolts), of parenting will then be learned, and have far more meaning, in a context of love and warmth without the ‘blocks’ getting in the way.

Imprisonment may present an opportunity for Dad to reassess where he is going in life, how his behaviour has affected his family and in particular his children, and seek support for the future.  It may also present an opportunity for his spouse/partner to put healthy boundaries in place, establish routines, and challenge controlling and/or addictive behaviour on the part of Dad and other family members, if such has been present.

And it certainly presents an opportunity for a skilled practitioner to explore options with both Mam and Dad and encourage new ways of relating and resolving the inevitable conflict that is in all relationships, with the wellbeing and long-term happiness of their children in mind, a factor that is usually highly motivating for all parents whether in prison or outside.

Larry de Cléir, Project Leader, Bedford Row Family Project, Limerick