Victims of Crime, Victims of Punishment: The Children of Prisoners in New Zealand

In New Zealand, more than 23,000 children have a parent in prison. These little people don’t have a voice. They remain silent in sentencing, criminal justice policies and public debate.

They are also five times more likely to end up in prison than their peers.

87% of female prisoners and 65% of male prisoners are parents (Gordon, Liz. Invisible Children. Chirstchurch: Pillars, 2009). In 2015, WhatWorks.org.nz (a project of the New Zealand-registered charity Community Research) reported that two thirds of imprisoned mothers were the sole custodian of their children before going to prison.

The incarceration of a parent has devastating effects on children. A study by Te Puni Kokiri found that symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as nightmares and bedwetting were prevalent. Children suffering from poor physical, emotional and mental health were common as a direct result of parental imprisonment. Physical issues included asthma, eczema and nervous disorders. Emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, shame and attachment problems were rife. A number of the children studied had mental health or conduct disorders. At school, common issues are transience, low attendance, dropping of grades and bullying. Children of prisoners are less likely to graduate from high school than other young people.

According to a 2011 study done by Pillars,

“Children often feel disempowered, ignored, denigrated or blamed.” They experience feelings of “anger and alienation.. this anger, over time, makes it more likely that the children will head down the parental path to imprisonment.”

Jimmy* describes his childhood as “nothing out of the ordinary”. He lived with his parents and his younger brother. Reflecting on his childhood, he says:

“Dad was the type of guy to spoil us kids. If we were sick he’d offer to buy us something to make us happy. Our family has always been tight. As far back as I can remember, Mum was the one who was emotionally supportive and organised things for school and Dad was the one to keep us in line. Although he never hit us or nothing, his word was enough to make me and my brothers listen. He was the disciplinary type but the love has always been there. He did well to shield us from anything that children shouldn’t be exposed to and was an all-round great Dad.”

Jimmy was 12 years old and his younger brother just seven, when their father was sentenced to eight years in prison. The media described Jimmy’s dad as a “Gang Boss”.

We don’t have to excuse the criminal conduct to remember that the media reports on crime in isolation from its context. This can dehumanise the offender, and makes it easy for the wider public to forget that offenders are not only offenders. They are also parents, children, brothers, sisters, employers and employees. Like everyone else, offenders are part of wider social structures – the most important of which is the family.

Jimmy makes this clear:

“I was 12 when Dad got sentenced to jail and at the time I didn’t properly understand what for. I remember a lot of confusion and wondering why it seemed like everyone was against Dad. It was all very strange to me. I remember the first few times visiting Dad in jail. I would burst into tears. By the time it came that we had to go, it felt like the glue that kept the family together had gone and I didn’t even understand why.”

Imprisonment of a family member puts enormous stress on the family unit. In Jimmy’s case, it was a shock that devastated his family and changed his life forever.

In one study, two thirds of families of prisoners were on social welfare benefits. They struggle to put money in their family member’s prison trust account, send phone cards and provide clothing. Already scarce resources are spread thin, often at the expense of the needs of the children. When asked what changed when his dad went to prison, Jimmy said:

“That’s when times got rough. Not long after Dad left, we got kicked out of our house and ended up living in messed up places which weren’t very family orientated at all. I started getting mad at everything and felt alone. The loss of structure and routine and my disciplinary figure meant I felt like I could do whatever I wanted. A few years into Dad being inside, Mum started getting stomach ulcers making it hard for her to do anything as she was in agony a lot and that’s when CYFS got involved. To this day I wish I made things easier on my mum as a kid. CYFS relocated me to a CYFS home for a bit although Mum fought and got us back. That point in time was the closest I came to losing all sense of what I knew as a family.”

Many of the children in Te Puni Kokiri’s study had begun to commit petty crime and acts of violence. In nearly half the arrests of their parents, some of which were dawn raids by the armed offenders squad, one or more children were present. It is unsurprising that these children develop a deep hatred and opposition to authority and show signs of PTSD.

“From the ages of 14 - 17 I started doing things like stealing from [the supermarket] and even burgled houses. There wasn’t that disciplinary figure in my life anymore and I just looked up to people from the wrong crowds. When I first got charged with burglary I was discharged due to a rap son I had written and recorded to the judge expressing my remorse. If Dad was out there’s no way I would have been doing that stuff. When I was little and even now it’s not what the cops would do that keeps me in line, it’s what Dad would think.”

The last line is telling. 23,000 children have been traumatised by an enemy they grow up to call “society”. They shut their doors and close their circles. Prison creates a separation which filters down through generations. Their parents don’t teach them this hate, we do.

“Dad’s out and has been for a few years and we are once again that tight knit family. Every week we’ll spot an undercover or something sitting outside our house. I understand it’s their job but really I feel like due to Dad’s lock up I have a lot less respect for police and society as a whole for not understanding how hard it was for me to lose Dad and the fact that the police still try makes me sick. He’s getting old now and I would hate for my 12 year old brother to go through the same thing I did, although me and my other brother would be helping out my Mum this time. Although its helped me grow as a person and find my passion for music in life, I’ll never get those precious years back again. I feel a lot of people judge people like my dad only for what they’re led to believe which makes me bitter in a way. To this day Dad’s my idol and my hero. To have people who don’t know him wanting him villainised sucks.”

Prison was designed to send a message that crime will not be tolerated and the imagined outcome was a reduction in crime. New Zealand children have been devastated by this mistaken thinking, by a system which is supposed to protect them. The family should be our most important social structure. Protection of our most vulnerable should be paramount. There are other ways to punish crime – home detention and other community sentences that are sufficiently punitive, decrease recidivism and keep families together.

We are relentlessly unforgiving and unjust as a society. We are no longer a community who cares about its members. Instead we throw around phrases like “public safety” and “do the crime, do the time” and “they don’t deserve to have children”. Too late, they do.

23,000 deeply damaged children is unacceptable collateral damage in executing justice. We are so focused on justice, we have forgotten how to show compassion. We are so caught up in punishment we are blind to who we are punishing. For every prisoner we lock up, we sacrifice two children. Is it really worth it?

* Jimmy’s last name has been removed for privacy reasons.

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Julia Fyers