Prison through the eyes of a child

Published May 10, 2013 – by Lisa Jordan


Born in Poland, living in England, Sarah was six years old when she went on holiday to France with her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend. The police stopped their car for a routine traffic violation. The boyfriend fled. Sarah’s mother stayed with Sarah in the car. Drugs were found.

The police took Sarah’s mother away; she is now serving a multiyear sentence in a French prison. Sarah, who didn’t speak any French, was placed with a French foster family. It is hard to imagine what a trauma it must have been for her: one moment enjoying the excitement of a holiday, the next moment watching as her mother was led away by men whose words she couldn’t understand. She didn’t see her mother again for months.

Sarah is one of an estimated 800,000 children of prisoners growing up in Europe today. She committed no crime, yet she is surely serving a sentence.

Most of us were lucky enough to be introduced to the institutions of the state, as a child, in a benign way – a visit to an open day at the fire station, perhaps, or a school visit from a friendly policeman. For children like Sarah, their first points of contact with the state are very different – the policeman who unexpectedly takes their parent away, perhaps in a violent raid; the intimidating guard who later prevents them from reaching out to touch their parent in a cold prison visiting room.

Can we expect such children ever to look on police officers, judges or other agents of the state with anything other than suspicion and fear? It should be no surprise that children with a parent in prison are twice as likely to exhibit antisocial behaviour as they grow up.

It is entirely possible to help a child like Sarah past the trauma of violence or arrest. However, police officers typically receive very little guidance about how to do so. Often, when a parent is taken away, their children are simply left alone until a relative, the social services or a voluntary group turns up. Children who have experienced this trauma have their own suggestions: “if the police arrest parents when children are present, one of them should stay behind to give information”; ‘’when the police raid a house, there should be a safe space for children to go to.’’

Beyond the initial trauma of arrest, children whose parents are imprisoned also need to be helped to cope with the disruption to the precious bond between parent and child – a relationship that is central to children’s healthy psychological development. While the prison environment instinctively seems to be one from which we would want to shield children, evidence shows that good quality contact with a parent in prison seems to be a key factor in building resilience in children – resilience that reduces their risk of antisocial behaviour.

Even better, good contact with children has also been shown to reduce the rates of re-incarceration amongst parents.

Eurochips, a membership-based organisation made up of judges, psychologists, police officers, social service employees, Quakers and other volunteers, and a longstanding partner of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, is working on recommendations to minimise the extent to which children are punished for the crimes of their parents (see and for more about this work).

For example, the proposal to use ankle bracelets instead of prison sentences for non-violent offences committed by single parents – a proposal currently being debated in the Netherlands – makes obvious sense from all perspectives.

Even in situations where the arrested parent has been behaving violently towards the child or another household member, the child is often left in a labyrinth of conflicting emotions – guilt, shame and powerlessness along with relief. European societies need to understand that if innocent children are made to feel guilty for the crimes of their parents, they may grow up to fulfil the expectation. And that is bad for everyone.

By Lisa Jordan, Executive Director, 8 May 2013