THE BLOG

Time To End Prison Scheme That Stops Children Seeing Their Dads

24/08/2017 11:09 BST | Updated 24/08/2017 11:09 BST

Children with a father in prison are often the innocent victims torn away from their dads and left counting the days until they can visit them.

As if that's not tough enough, thousands of children are refused the chance to spend quality time with their fathers.

At the crux of the matter is a prison scheme that grants family visits as a reward for male prisoners for demonstrating certain behaviours. While intended to instil discipline in male prisoners, the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP) also hurts the ones that have done nothing wrong - their children.

Family visits are being refused if fathers have not reached a certain level in the scheme.

Motivation

Dads are entitled to two hours of visiting time every four weeks. If they want more, or family visits during weekends or holidays, they have to reach a higher level in the scheme. They can do this by demonstrating motivation by signing up to do courses or helping prison officers or fellow inmates. If they fail to make the grade, or misbehave, they don't get extra family visits.

Tough, you might say. But tough on who? Tough on the innocent child looking forward to precious time playing with their dad. Tough on the distraught child who is now having sleepless nights. Tough on the child whose emotional development may never recover. And perhaps even, in the long run, tough on you and I, as the likelihood of dads reoffending will be higher.

A child's right

How can we allow a situation which knowingly causes such upset to children as a means to teach the dad a lesson? As Barnardo's Vice President Floella Benjamin said in the House of Lords last month, it should be a child's right to visit their dad in prison, not for a dad to earn the right to see their child.

What makes this situation not just cruel but nonsensical, is that this rule doesn't apply to women's prisons. Guidance for women's prisons states that 'children should not be penalised from visiting or contacting their mother because of the mother's behaviour'. Are we really saying that a father is less important than a mother? It is unlikely a child sees it that way.

And we aren't talking about a handful of examples. Around 200,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment each year in England and Wales and children make nearly 10,000 visits each week to public prisons. Barnardo's supports thousands of children and their families affected by a parent in prison every year.

Mental health problems, bullying and poverty

It's also a fact that life chances tend to be worse for children of prisoners. They are more likely to experience mental health problems, bullying, poverty and a decrease in school attendance and achievement. They are also more likely to become offenders themselves.

We urged the government to end this scheme a year ago and were told it was under review. But we're still waiting, and children are still suffering.

Thankfully there are some positive moves. Lord Farmer's recently published review said good family relationships are urgently needed and "indispensable" to a prisoner achieving rehabilitation. The Ministry of Justice's own research shows that, for a prisoner who receives regular visits from a partner or family member, the odds of reoffending are 39 per cent lower than for prisoners who had not received such visits.

The government must address this now, as maintaining family ties is essential for children's emotional development and life chances.