Book Review: Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners: Invisible Children

Over the last two decades mass incarceration and the prison boom have seen more individuals imprisoned than ever before. The growing numbers of children with a parent in prison constitutes perhaps one of the largest at-risk populations globally. With an increased number of parents being imprisoned, the impact this has on children is profound. Children may experience a range of challenges, including: emotional, psychological, social and educational. Moreover, the effect of parental imprisonment may have undesirable consequences on children’s overall well-being and future prospects. In addition to this, children may face changes in family life, which also raises concerns around family finances, stigma and possible adjustments to family living arrangements. The tension of incarceration may further increase the chance of breakdowns in intimate partner relationships, making it difficult for children to get a sense of how positive relationships function.

In March 2017, researchers, advocates and NGOs from twelve countries came together in Rotorua, New Zealand, for the first conference of the International Coalition for the Children of Incarcerated Parents. The coalition had been formed the previous year to recognise that children of prisoners’ around the world faced similar challenges. From the moment of arrest until release from prison, the system is stacked against children. Justice tends to be more focused on punishing individuals, and, as one conference speaker noted, ‘child blind’. Adele Jones (2017) argues that at every point in the justice system, children are often overlooked. As a result, this becomes a type of collateral damage, and the system therefore fails to take accountability for any harm caused.

The book Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners edited by Liz Gordon, is a comprehensive collection of articles, which covers a wide range of research and literature on the children of prisoners. The book is divided into themes, which include: an introduction to parental incarceration and the various impacts this has on children, moving towards child-friendly prison systems, using mass incarceration to influence wider social change, the effects of pre-trial detention on families, maintaining family ties, resilience in children of incarcerated parents, detention procedures, child and family visitations to prison, and policy and practice across imprisonment. These are just some of the extensive topics which this book covers. Each chapter takes the reader on a journey and provides in-depth information, and is strongly supported by evidence.

Furthermore, the collection of papers within this book reflect contemporary research and analysis on the children of prisoners. Ann Adalist-Estrin (2017) set out ‘twelve guiding principles’ for working with children and families of the incarcerated, these principles where developed from training, focus groups and listening sessions with those who work with children, parents’ in prison, caregivers and children themselves. Ann writes that, “…the principles are meant to be thought provoking…to question ourselves and each other about the “who and why” of providing supports and services along with the “what and when”” (p.101).

Another chapter by Michael Trout (2017) looks at how babies and young children react to parental imprisonment, in his chapter, the author notes the impact on babies and young children when someone of importance is suddenly taken away from them. The chapter strongly focuses on the internal experience of very young children when their parent goes to prison. He states, “Our task is to open our minds to a full and quiet imagination of young child’s experience” (p.116). Additionally, Bahiyyah Muhammad (2017) writes a refreshing chapter on the resilience of children of incarcerated parents, which showcases her own research. Against all odds: Resilient children of incarcerated parents is a chapter which provides a somewhat different insight to children of prisoners’ research. The author acknowledges that while research on prisoners’ children is imperative, it is also important to start moving towards research which provides successful stories. To mitigate some of the impacts of parental imprisonment and to inspire children to move forward and beyond the stigma, which is too often placed on children who have a parent in prison. She notes, “…most research on prisoners’ children focuses on their problems and has not attempted to create a rounded picture of their lives” (p.143). Furthermore, “…focusing on the negative outcomes of parental incarceration on children of incarcerated parents does not allow them to become confident young adults” (p.152). This chapter stands out, as it provides a different perspective to research on children of prisoners. These labels which are placed on children of incarcerated parents are not impartial, “…they too have feelings and become bruised by adults’ loss of confidence in them and their capabilities, essentially because of their parents’ actions (p. 153).

In addition, the book continues to explore some of the highly complex topics that are to be found across children of prisoners’ research. Two papers consider women: one on mothers involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospital (p. 133) and the other examining the difficulties in maintaining family ties when a mother is sent to prison (p.155). Another great contribution to this book is that it looks at an initiative between university and community set up to ‘expand knowledge and inspire change’ for the children of prisoners (p.172). One paper examines the difficult topic of supporting families where a parent has been convicted of a sexual offence (p.190). Also discussed are the types of programmes that work to break the cycles of self-destruction for the children of prisoners (p. 226) and case studies of prison staff ‘making a difference’ in child and family visiting prisons (p. 266). With such coverage of difficult and sometimes complex topics, this allows the reader to delve into some of realties that children who have a parent in prison may encounter.

To conclude, the huge impacts of parental imprisonment on children and families are irrefutable. This clever and thought-provoking resource covers all of the main themes around children of prisoners’ research and includes some practice-based perspectives. This is beneficial as the book further provides value in bringing together top researchers, practitioners and experts in this field. The book provides a 360-degree view of issues which children of prisoners may face daily, making it a vital resource for all wanting an overview of how parental imprisonment may impact children globally. Lastly, the book has a great amount of theory, provides a contemporary approach to working with prisoners’ children, policy recommendations and tips for reducing recidivism.  Therefore, it is a suitable resource for academics, students or even to be used as a course book in criminology, social work or community/policy sociology.

Reviewed by Ivana Mlinac, University of Auckland

Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners: Invisible Children is available now, and can be purchased directly from Cambridge Scholars by clicking here.

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