PILLARS has mounted a 3-year study into the effects of imprisonment on the children of prisoners. Last November it released the first year’s research report – Invisible Children. (Liz Gordon, Networkers; www.pillars.org.nz). The research premise is that the effects on children of the arrest and imprisonment of a caregiver receive inadequate attention in the policy and practices of the justice system. The first step to addressing this is to begin collecting data on the circumstances and needs of prisoner’s children as a group. Little such data is collected by government agencies.
The study surveys relevant international literature and interviews prisoners, children of prisoners, their caregivers and stake-holders from government agencies and community organizations. By the end of the 3-year period, it aims to estimate the number of children in NZ who have a parent in prison and the number of prisoners who had a parent in prison when they were children. It also aims to assess the needs of children of prisoners and to examine the corresponding roles of agencies and community organisations.
In many cases reported, incarceration of a caregiver means the loss of an income earner for the household. In addition, the absence of one caregiver may force a remaining caregiver to give up paid work to care for children full time. This can mean the loss of two incomes with only a welfare benefit in its place. It is often difficult for children to maintain contact with an imprisoned parent. If the parent is in a prison distant from family, travel costs can be significant. According to the survey, only a quarter of the respondents are imprisoned within an hour’s drive from all of their children (p31). While some families receive travel assistance from PARS, many do not. Telephone calls are also expensive, as prisoners only have access to Telecom pay-phones which cost a flat rate of 99c/min (much higher than the cost of calls outside prison p38). Other barriers include inadequate visiting conditions in prisons.
Some of the issues noted include the negative attitude of some prison officers, lack of food and drink in the visiting area and visiting areas which cater poorly for children (p31). There are also various emotional and mental ill effects on children. Sudden and prolonged separation from a loved one may be traumatic for children. Moreover, according to international estimates, supported by the 1st year results of the study, a child is present in about 1 in 5 arrests, which can be sudden and violent. The ill-effects include anxiety, fear, anger, depression, nightmares, bed wetting, low self-esteem and attachment problems (pp45-50). Ill-effects in physical health result from increased economic disadvantage, such as poor nourishment, as well as from stress. There are also effects on education. The emotional and mental effects mentioned above may make it more difficult to concentrate. Classmates finding out about the imprisonment may lead to harassment or ostracism. The need to move, and to change schools as a result, may be disruptive. Many children have to move to be with a new caregiver. Sometimes the whole family may move to be closer to the prison that houses the absent caregiver.
Taken together, these ill-effects on children of prisoners may make it more likely that they will become offenders of the future (given the correlation between social deprivation and imprisonment; between various emotional and mental illnesses and imprisonment; and the inverse relation between educational attainment and imprisonment). From this preliminary 1st year data, the study estimates that the 8,500 prisoners at the time of the survey translates into roughly 18,000 children with an incarcerated parent. Some practical implications from the study include: reviewing policy and practice when children are expected to be present during arrest; re-thinking the merits of increased use of imprisonment as a penalty; and research into whether alternative penalties such as home detention mitigate some of the ill effects on children. It is also noted by some respondents that engagement by PARS in a prison visit makes a positive difference. It may be timely and beneficial for PARS and Corrections to work together on what constitutes a good prison visit. Invisibility is unjust.
Monitoring the human rights of detainees
In June 2007 the Office of the Ombudsmen was formally designated as a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) following amendments to the Crimes of Torture Act 1989. (The Human Rights Commission became the new Central Preventive Mechanism). Authority as a National Preventive Mechanism was ‘for the purposes of examining and monitoring the treatment of persons detained in prisons, premises approved and agreed under the Immigration Act 1987, health and disability places of detention and youth justice residences’. Two years later this role extended to include care and protection residences. Underpinning these new mechanisms is OPCAT – the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This protocol was given effect in NZ with the passage of the Crimes of Torture Amendment Act 2006 (COTA). Many individuals and groups, including the Howard League, made submissions on this Act, welcoming the more robust monitoring and protection of human rights that it promised.
The objective of OPCAT is to establish a system of regular visits by international and national bodies, i.e. the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture and designated National Preventive Mechanisms. These bodies visit places of detention to examine and monitor the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees. Within the Office of the Ombudsmen a Chief Inspector (COTA) was appointed to develop and carry out this role. The latest Report of The Ombudsmen 2008/2009 tells us that the Chief Inspector has identified people detained against their will (or without their informed consent) under the following eleven pieces of NZ legislation: Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992; Intellectual (Compulsory Care and Rehabilitation) Act 2003; Criminal Procedure (Mentally Impaired Persons) Act 2003; Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Act 1985; Corrections Act 2004; Criminal Justice Act 1985; Extradition Act 1999; Summary Proceedings Act 1957; Terrorism Suppression Act 2002; Immigration Act 1987; and the Protections of Personal and Property Rights Act 1988.
By June 2009, 90 ‘scoping’ visits had been completed at Immigration, Mental Health sites, Care & Protections residences, Prisons, and Court Cells. 18 ‘focused’ visits were also completed at Mental Health Units, Prisons and Immigration facilities. Over 120 facilities need to be visited. So far, say the Ombudsmen, ‘a number of significant areas of concern’ have been identified which may not have surfaced without this role (see pp.30-32, Report). More of this at our AGM.
Changing the guard at Howard League Canterbury
Come May this year a number of changes will take place within the Howard League Canterbury. Planning is underway for these as we go to print. At this years AGM, Nigel Hampton QC, who has ably Chaired the League for the past 12 years, is standing down. So too is Secretary, Kathy Dunstall. Both were closely involved in re-launching the League in Canterbury in February 1998 and with overseeing its work and development. Over the years both have received stout support from strong Committees and been encouraged by the extensive support for penal reform that exists in the community, both moral and financial. This saw a League office open in 2002 at the Christchurch Community House and a part-time Advocate employed from 2005 to deal with the day-to-day work of the League. These and other factors have enabled the League in Canterbury to establish itself as a credible and informed voice on penal policy and to forge strong links with those it works for and alongside – prisoners, their families, official agencies, researchers, students, community groups and the many media outlets seeking information or opinions. Also in mid-May, our Advocate, Diana Taylor, is taking maternity leave for a year. After almost 4 years in the position, Diana has earned the trust and respect of prisoners and their families nationwide in dealing with hundreds of letters, emails and telephone calls. The position will likely be advertised in the near future. In July, we hope to start a University Intern on a research project. So, new people, fresh ideas and new directions are in store.