The Golden Thread: Putting family at the heart of the criminal justice system

By Sophie Kenny, Researcher, Criminal Justice Unit, The Centre for Social Justice

The Golden Thread: Putting family at the heart of the criminal justice system

13th March 2022

Sophie KennyThe Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of familial relationships. For many of us, the defining memory of this period is how little we could see, chat to, or hug our loved ones. While technology helped us to overcome the distance that separated us, the quality of these interactions paled in comparison to the physical contact we were used to.

Yet, this bleak experience remains a reality for a particular cohort of people. Families with a relative in custody continue to endure the challenge of separation from their loved ones day-in and day-out. Often, their daily experience is marked by a longing for the next point of connection, whether it be through a phone call or a face to-face visit.

However, this is just one of the many challenges that families who are supporting a relative through the criminal justice system face. From the moment of their relative’s arrest through to release, families become entangled in a complex system which are they forced to navigate with little to no external support. Regardless of the crime committed, many families expend huge amounts of time, energy and money maintaining their relationship with their relative inside. This level of support can be all-consuming, whether it be for the father who attends court each day despite the impact it has on his mental health, the grandparent who picks up the child from school after their primary caregiver has been sentenced, or the wife who drives for hours every weekend so that her child can see their father in prison.

Arguably, no one suffers the effects of imprisonment more than children. An estimated 312,000 children are separated from their parents by imprisonment each year. As a result, each of these children will be at increased risk of psychological, economic and social harm, yet there is currently no nationally recorded or published data on the number of individuals who pass through the criminal justice system with dependent children. Critically, there is also no process for these children to be identified and therefore supported at the point of imprisonment. This, in our view, is a national scandal.

During the course of our research, we heard several accounts of children being left to live on their own after their primary carer was given a custodial sentence. In one case, Leo, a 16-year-old boy, lived alone for several months in his family home without any external support when his mother was sent to prison. As his father had passed away several years before, Leo relied on his mother’s bank cards to buy food and cover the household expenses. Leo did not confide in anyone that he was living alone. Instead, he told his neighbours that his mother was working away. Before Leo was identified by police and referred to a voluntary sector organisation in the community, he struggled to sleep at night and was extremely anxious.

Stories like Leo’s are why the Centre for Social Justice believes that the Government must act to safeguard children affected by imprisonment. We have proposed a mechanism of identification and referral that will ensure there are multiple touchpoints during arrest and sentencing to pick up every child that requires support when their primary caregiver has been sent to custody.

In total, this report makes 22 recommendations which set out a vision for a more compassionate and trauma-informed criminal justice system that responds to the needs of prisoners’ families. These include ensuring that all family members, such as stepparents and grandparents, can access family days in prison and measures to ensure families are supported to come together again after imprisonment, if it is safe and in in the best interests of both the family and the prison leaver to do so.

Families can play a critical role in supporting the rehabilitation of prisoners. However, no longer can families be expected to bear this burden alone. It is time that families are valued for the gift that they are to the system, and afforded the support they so desperately need. In the words of one interviewee, we must look at ‘the impact of that trauma on affected others. If we don’t deal with that, we are just setting in motion another cycle of pain, hurt and addiction.’

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