The General Impacts Of Family Imprisonment On The Child

Each individual child will be affected by a family imprisonment in a unique way. Wright and Khan (2010) suggest that for some families this will be their first experience of the criminal justice system, whilst others will have been involved for many years prior. Studies have shown that there is a wide variety in the number and characteristics of support needs of children and families in this situation. Every child who goes through a family imprisonment will have different needs for support, particularly in relation to mental health. Schools and other agencies must therefore be alerted of the general impacts of family imprisonment on the child, but always see the individual as a child and the particular pattern of difficulties and challenges that they face.

When it comes to the impact imprisonment has on a child, it should be recognized that different genders will react differently. Each child will have a different relationship with the parent in prison so it can be especially hard to express the emotions. Murray and Farrington (2005) have noted that boys tend to show externalized problem behavior whilst girls tend to have more internalized reactions. However this can differ whether it is a mother or father who is in prison. A change in behavior can become apparent at any time whether it is during the imprisonment or after.

Some may say that the impact of a father’s imprisonment may have a major impact on a child however; the imprisonment of a mother may have even greater consequences, especially in terms of living and care arrangement. Statistics have shown that mothers are far more likely to have sole responsibility for childcare and as a result the child is much more likely to be moved from the family home if the mother is imprisoned as there will not be a main carer for the children.

Research has shown that when a mother is sentenced, only 5 per cent of children remain in their own home. While some children whose mother is imprisoned will be cared for by their father, many will either be looked after by wider family e.g. grandparents or entered into the care system. If the child does go into care or live with a foster parent, this may have negative implications for the mother, such as parenting issues when she is released as the child may prefer the current foster/care environment.

Information to the child may be censored until a certain age, parents or guardian may feel that is unnecessary that the child needs to be informed about the negative behavior of a parent or that it will affect their relationship with one another. It will differ between cases in terms of what a child knows about a family member’s imprisonment due to the nature or severity of the case. Parents may optionally take the route of not telling a younger child about the imprisonment at all, and the child may believe that the parent is ‘working away’ or ‘on holiday’. Also, some children may be unclear about how long the family member will be in prison, particularly young children whose concept of lengthy periods of time may be more limited. This route to take can have greater effects in later life due to the lies the child has been told in early life even though it was thought to be the best option at that time. Information shared with not only children but outside of a family network will also be limited due to the nature of the offence. Some offences may produce significantly greater challenges for the child to come to terms with than others. The offence may have directly involved the child as a victim, in which case the child will have had first-hand contact with the offence; most extreme cases including the child being a victim of sexual assault. In these situations, in addition to the other damaging effects including mental health issues and physical issues, the child may also in some way feel to blame for the parent being in prison.

Across a lifespan, mental health issues will be present regardless of a family imprisonment; however, research has shown that adults who experience the onset of depression in childhood or adolescence have more impaired social and occupational functioning and poorer quality of life than those whose depression commences in adulthood. It is also suggested, not in all cases but childhood mental health concerns might contribute to worse outcomes across a variety of domains such as lower educational attainment, early childbearing and poor occupational functioning.

It is found that men who had experienced parental imprisonment during their childhood were significantly more likely to have high levels of anxiety and depression at the age of 48 than those in the comparison group. This figure clearly shows a trend in how parental imprisonment can affect you across your lifespan.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder which you may develop after being involved in, or witnessing, traumatic events. R.D. Laing was a psychiatrist who wrote in the late 1960s, he believed that ‘mental illness’ is really a natural response to being in an unbearable situation.

A traumatic event is something out of the ordinary that happens which is deeply distressing to someone. It is common before being diagnosed with PTSD you experience emotions such as:

  • Feeling numb
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Re-living the trauma in your mind
  • Avoiding things to do with the trauma
  • Blaming others or self
  • Feeling tense, irritable or jumpy.

PTSD may be described differently in some situations; delayed-onset PTSD is when your symptoms emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma.

Complex PTSD is if you experienced trauma at an early age or it lasted for a long time. PTSD doesn’t mean an individual is ‘dwelling’ on a past event, it is not something which you can suddenly ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from. For most people, the reaction will have disappeared within a few weeks but for some people they can continue. For others it may be that the reaction doesn’t start immediately after the traumatic event but begins after a delay.

PTSD reactions can affect us in at least four different ways including how we feel, the way we think, the way our body works and the way we behave. We react so strongly to traumas because it often shatters the basic beliefs we may have about life: that it is fairly safe and secure, that life for us has a particular form, meaning and purpose. It may be that the image we have about ourselves is shattered, we may have responded differently from how we expected or wanted to behave. Secondly, trauma occurs suddenly and without warning, we have no time to adjust to this new experience. In the face of this danger our mind holds on to the memory of the trauma very strongly, probably as a natural form of self-protection to ensure you never get into that situation again. The result of this is therefore PTSD.

In order to overcome the trauma, it is important to understand that the reactions and emotions you are experiencing are very common following a trauma; it is not a sign of weakness or cracking up. Coping with the post-traumatic stress can include:

  • Making sense of the trauma
  • Dealing with flashbacks and nightmares
  • Overcoming tension, irritability and anger
  • Overcoming avoidance
  • Overcoming low mood.

Thomas Szasz (1971) suggested that mental illness doesn’t really exist. He thought that what we call ‘mental illness’ is really just another ‘social construct’- a label society uses to control non-conformist behaviors. He then went on to say that people who behave in a way that the rest of society sees as unacceptable or dangerous are defined as ‘mentally ill’. The dysfunctional consequences of institutionalization are not always immediately obvious once the institutional structure and procedural imperatives have been removed. This is especially true in cases where persons retain a minimum of structure wherever they re-enter free society.

However, some people such as Zamble and Parporian 1988 suggest imprisonment is like a ‘deep freeze’. This is the idea that an individual’s pre-existing tendencies are put on hold whilst in prison until they are able to exercise these again once released. ‘Nothing much matters, you can do what you want to prisoners and no long term effects will stick’. Therefore, comes to the conclusion that tendencies outside of prison can’t be replicated inside and are consequently put on hold hence leading to reoffending as our justice system is set up to bring prisoners back once set free.

Victims, prevention and punishment

Sociologists unsurprisingly have different views on the purpose of crime and the importance of punishment. Functionalists for example, argue that punishment keeps society going, if crimes went unnoticed, the result would be anarchy and society would collapse. The public needs to see that there is retribution for the crime. Durkheim said that public punishment of criminals was important for society. Punishment helps create a unity and a consensus as people came together to condemn the criminal. On the other hand, some sociologists such as interventionists see prisons as a deterrent, the fact that it exists should put people off committing a crime.

Prisons can be a way of removing criminals from our streets so they cannot commit any more crimes. However, the Zero tolerance attitudes and policing which are supposed to crack down on crime have unfortunately led to mass incarceration; since the 1970s the number of people in UK prisons has dramatically increased as we have entered an era of crime. It is also indicated that bodies associated with criminal justice and welfare are increasingly working together. The role of prisons is now taking more of a welfare role than they ever have before. However, from this there is a development in transcarceration where more vulnerable individuals are constantly moved between different kinds of institutions e.g. prisons, mental institutes, young offenders facilities which control their lives negatively as prisons become part of this network. When it comes to crime prevention, there are different approaches to the situation and the environment. Right realists favor the situational approach; this involves changing the physical environment of area to make it harder for people to commit crimes. This change could include gated communities, putting up more surveillance cameras or improving lighting in streets and car parks. This approach would ultimately decrease the amount of crime in public areas as more attention is drawn to these areas. However, some sociologists also point out that the situational crime prevention only deals with the symptoms of criminality, rather than tackling the factors that cause people to resort to crime.

Another approach is environmental crime prevention, which tries to stop specific areas from becoming vulnerable to crime. Many people suggest that this theory involves keeping an areas environment clean and in good repair to make it obvious that people care about the area. An example of this would be fixing vandalized property and clearing away rubbish prevents an area from falling into decline and becoming a target for criminal activity. The ‘zero tolerance policing’ was put forwards by Wilson and Kelling where antisocial behavior is tackled swiftly and strictly. The two suggested that serious crimes can be prevented by combining good policing with maintenance of environments.

Case study

‘Father of 2 children both under the age of 3, in and out of their lives and consequently absent for all of their childhood until the age of 14/15. Leaving little to no memories and a mother alone trying to hold down a job and run a household to support the children. Missing the majority of their childhood because of various crimes all of a violent and harmful manor’.

Questions I asked were as follows:

  • Do you believe that having has a case of ‘imprisonment’ in your life affected your mental health in anyway?
  • From your experience does imprisonment work?
  • What was the main struggle regarding the imprisonment?
  • Has the imprisonment changed the dynamics of the family?
  • What would you say to a family going through a case of parental imprisonment?

From the information which I gathered from my questions, it became apparent that there were difficulties within the family purely because of the imprisonment. The nature of the offence was violent and had the potential to create serious life time damages on both those directly involved and the families related. We know that from the research I collected that a family network would never be the same after a lengthy incarceration however did not realize the extent to which it could do so. For example one unnamed participant announced they have experienced forms of ‘PTSD later on in life and only recently been diagnosed with this as a disorder’. They also described how new experiences had been affected due to the imprisonment. They also went on to say that this had been ‘very confusing to grow up with’ especially having experienced this at such a young age, they almost found themselves expressing their anger for the offender in forms such as anger and depression. Later on in my interview the participant confessed that they have had sessions counseling to combat their ‘PTSD’ and try to recognize that the circumstances which they were unwillingly put into doesn’t have control their life. However their battle still continues.

In answer to my question regarding the ‘dynamics of the family’, one participant went on to suggest that although having an absent father for the majority of their life, they were fortunate enough to strengthen other relationships within the family. For example, grandparents had much more of an influence in their upbringing as the mother was working and grandparents had retired so could look after the children before and after school to fill in the absent parents place. Having grown up closer to the grandparents than most other children their age, they described them as second parents. To strengthen this information, I also asked someone else involved with this study to share their experience from a more adult point of view. The participant went onto describe the struggles they were put into trying to keep a family together including how it can ‘collapse a marriage’ and make them ‘financially deprived’. ’Having to experience this day by day was such a task; luckily enough we had the support we needed to keep us going’. Evidence shows that it is hard enough to look after yourself in these awful situation but to have 2 children who both don’t understand what has happened is even more unthinkable. Advice they would give would be to get all the support you need and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Looking from the point of view from this case study, it clearly suggests that imprisonment does not work as the offender was ‘in and out’ of their life. Reoffending caused many problems for the participants of my research suggesting that the offender being in and out of prison had a greater effect than just the one time because they were in constant unsettlement of home life.


To conclude, we can clearly see that there is a much broader effect than just the convict them self. Many people in prisons have hurt other people, and what follows is not intended to excuse that behavior in any way. Much of the evidence about the damage caused by prisons is focused on offenders, and not on their families or prison staff. We can see similarities between the different sources used such as the negative effect on childhood upbringing are apparent in most of the evidence. Mental health of everyone involved in the crime can be effected weather victim or criminal there will be some sort of long term effect. We can draw parallels between childhood upbringing and the onset of mental health issues later on in life be it PTSD or anger issues. There is proof of imprisonment harming a child from visits being a negative memory, causing a divorce in the family or even just having to readjust.

03 December 2019
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now