Imprisonment and its consequences

Prison and its consequences  9

The primary purpose of a prison sentence is to punish the offender. However, we tend to forget that a family exist behind the curtains of  shame,  loss, anger, isolation and anxiety. The families from which prisoners come are among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society and the imprisonment of a family member frequently serves to further compound their disadvantage. In the face of everyday highlighted issues, the needs of prisoners and their families is not of concern the public. Furthermore, in a political climate where to be perceived as being ‘soft on crime’ can cost crucial votes, advocating on behalf of the rights of prisoners is not a wise career move for any politician seeking office. After all, prisoners have broken the law and presumably ‘gotten what they deserve,  if you do the crime, you do the time. Since the abolition of capital punishment, the deprivation of an individual’s liberty through imprisonment is the most severe state sanction available in Ireland. Yet even the most cursory of examinations into the effects of imprisonment reveals a host of negative consequences for both those incarcerated and the loved ones they leave behind on the outside. Prisoners’ families, particularly their children, are often termed the ‘innocent victims’ of crime and undeserved punishment.  The effects of imprisonment on families are the collateral or ripple effects of imprisonment. Families are seen as guilty by association, even though they are legally innocent and generally had no involvement in the offence. This is stigma by association. This stigma makes the imprisonment even more difficult for family members, and it can also mean that families are treated negatively by other members of their community, colleagues, the media, friends and other family members.  Imprisonment tends to impose financial strain on the families of prisoners by decreasing the family income and by increasing family expenditure, due to costly visits and phone calls, and handing in money for their loved ones in prison. Visiting also involves a great deal of time, effort both physical and emotional and expense.  Visiting can be quite an emotional experience, with both positive and negative  feelings in the mix: for example due to the brevity of the visit saying ‘goodbye’ comes quickly, which can be distressing. The bedrock of all Christian social teaching is the protection of the dignity of human life. This principle is based on the belief that all persons are created in the image of God and thus are deserving of ‘care and attention that belong to beings of inestimable worth’. However, as research and first-hand testimonies show, imprisonment frequently has a negative and demoralising impact on both the individuals incarcerated and their families.  To many in our society, the impact of imprisonment on prisoners and their families is a matter of little or no importance. The Irish Prison Chaplains observed that: Suffering is further exacerbated by a visiting routine that is far from family-friendly … The prison regime itself … does nothing to support the family unit that is shattered by the imprisonment of one of its members. The isolation that is experienced gives rise to high levels of distress for all concerned.

Parental stigmatization has been identified as one of the ways in which prisoners’ children are socially excluded and can lead to children becoming deviant themselves. The increased likelihood that children of prisoners will themselves experience incarceration has led one writer to argue that: ‘As evidence of intergenerational crime and incarceration continues to mount, every criminal justice and corrections policy affecting children of offenders should be scrutinised for its long-term implications.  We do know that the majority of Irish prisoners are young, male and come from Dublin. In general, the prisoners surveyed were highly socially disadvantaged and their lives were characterised by instability. Almost a third of the prisoners came from families disrupted by desertion or separation on the part of parents. The fact is that 15% of prisoners had a father who had been in prison and 44 % had a sibling who had been in prison. 75% of the prisoners had fathered at least one child, 60% of these fathers played no active role in their families or in relationships with their children. Remembering that one of the Corporal Works of Mercy is “ to visit the imprisoned”. Do we do that as a society with Christian values?