The Silent Sentence
A three-year-old boy walks, unhesitatingly, towards a female prison officer and stands on a rubber mat, arms and legs splayed. The woman looks around in surprise, wondering from which family group this small person has toddled from, whilst the boy waits patiently for the officer to search him. For him, this is normal. It is normal to be patted by a strange lady, to walk with mummy through big metal doors that are opened and locked again behind you, to be licked by the naughty dog as you stand on a big ‘X’ on the floor. This is what happens when we go to ‘Granddad’s house’.
In May of this year Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, called for the government to do more to help the estimated 200,000 children in England and Wales with a parent in prison. Such children ‘face isolation, stigma, poverty, and family breakdown’ (http://bit.ly/1xnd57c). Yet despite their suffering, they remain forgotten by the criminal justice system.
When my Dad began his sentence, my son was only 18 months old. I worried about what sort of relationship he would form with his granddad, if he would remember who he was each time we visited, if he would grow up to love him like he did the rest of his grandparents. There is nothing more heart wrenching than watching your little boy searched by a prison officer. Frequently, we were treated like criminals in the prisons we visited. We were bombarded with unexplained paperwork and confusing visiting systems, herded like cattle into confined spaces, frowned at with suspicion as we turned our pockets out and opened our mouths. We were lucky: as a family, we were strong, and my Dad’s relationship with his grandson is more than I could ever have hoped for.
But where is the support for those who can’t read and write in order to fill in the paperwork they need, or write to a loved one? Where is the support for those facing eviction and homelessness because their main income has gone? Where is the support for those who are not strong enough to face the emotional degradation that comes from being constantly shut out by the system?
So much focus is placed on punishment of the convicted, yet so often the family of the convicted are equally, and irreparably, punished. Children with a parent in prison are not the only individuals who suffer. Every child who has a family member in prison risks losing a valuable relationship, and every prisoner who has family on the outside risks losing the very connections that could save them from returning to prison after their release. What is the point of the outside world, if your only relationships remain inside?
If the government is truly looking to cut reoffending rates, they need to consider how to support prisoner-family relationships before release so that ex-offenders still have a family to go back to. They need to start taking notice of the faces behind the
prisoner — the children, grandchildren, wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers — the whole network of friends and family who are forced to serve the sentence with them.