Children with a jailed parent are the ‘invisible victims’ of the justice system and do not receive enough support to keep in contact with them and maintain a good relationship, a new report has found.

Researchers from UNSW Canberra, the University of New England, and the Australian National University have urged policymakers to improve contact between incarcerated parents and their children by embracing technology in prisons.

“By maintaining communication during imprisonment, children are able to maintain familial ties which can help with the post-release transition for both parents and children,” UNSW Canberra’s Dr Caroline Doyle told Central News.

Research found that preserving communication during imprisonment through telephone, email, mail or face-to-face visits can provide better outcomes for children and detainees.

Recommendations, such as the use of tablet computers, which Dr Doyle said had received positive feedback after trials in NSW and Victorian prisons, were listed as ways to overcome previously faced challenges. This would allow families to call outside standard visiting hours, as many families struggle to remain in contact during standard hours.

Lowering the cost of phone calls from prison would also help to improve in-cell communications, the report found. According to Dr Doyle, some jurisdictions incur high costs for making a phone call from prison.

In Victoria, the cost of a 10-minute phone call can cost more than the daily wage people could make from in-prison employment.

The children think that their parents don’t want them, they think that their dad doesn’t want to speak to them.

Dr Lukas Carey from the University of New England said the first step towards improved systemic in-cell communication is a “shift in mindset”.

“Kids need their incarcerated parents, and, even though it’s not acknowledged, incarcerated parents need their kids,” he said.

He added maintaining parent-child bonds rely on the communications system, as limited communications can cause mental health issues and increase adverse childhood experiences that may lead children toward their own criminal activity.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, 16.9 per cent of adults in prison and 52.6 per cent of young people in youth justice centres in NSW reported they had a parent who had been imprisoned.

“The children think that their parents don’t want them, they think that their dad doesn’t want to speak to them,” he said.

“The partner or caregiver is trying to tell the child that the [incarcerated] parent still loves them, but they just can’t talk to them…how does a young kid compute that?”

Whilst children are deemed vulnerable under the system, the researchers found restricted communication with family also hinders the parent’s ability to reintegrate into society.

According to Dr Carey, family contact is looked at for parole requests. When access to communication is restricted, he says the system is then restricting people’s opportunities to gain parole.

“This goes back to asking what jail is all about,” he said.

“Is jail all about punishment, or is it about reintegrating and rehabilitating? If you’re attempting to rehabilitate someone without their closest and strongest family ties, which for the most part is someone’s children, it’s just not going to work.

“How can we actually put together rehabilitation plans for men when they’ve returned home and haven’t spoken to their kids for a period of time?”

I feel emotional because I see myself sitting on a bench, hidden away on a phone and crying because I’ve missed something in my kids’ lives.

As someone who has spent time in prison, Dr Carey said he did not have the opportunity to speak with his children as much as he would have hoped during his period of incarceration.

The availability of phones during peak times, the cost of making calls and the time limits of calls often made it difficult for him to speak with his children. He said family communication “became a burden” as the hours available for contact were often at times that disrupted the schedule of his family at home.

“Even now, I feel emotional because I see myself sitting on a bench, hidden away on a phone and crying because I’ve missed something in my kids’ lives,” he said.

The pandemic saw rising opportunities for in-cell communication between children and incarcerated parents, as facilities had to seek technological resolutions while in-person visits were suspended. Video visits were introduced, and the researchers found continued use of technology could more positively support children who struggle to visit their parents.

Challenges previously faced by young visitors included incompatible visitation hours, limited public transport, and the high cost of phone calls.

However, researchers found new challenges were met for children using video visits. According to Dr Caroline Doyle, children received less contact time with their parents in prison, and telephone and video visits were not always suitable for some children’s needs, particularly for younger children and children with disabilities.

“Despite these challenges, the technology holds some promise as part of a suite of interventions to connect children to incarcerated parents,” she said.

Dr Carey added improving the availability for in-cell technology “is not difficult, it’s just a case of mindset change”.

Main photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash