Keeping it together

Prison and family life

HAVE YOU EVER thought about what it would be like to have a loved one in prison? Would you stay in contact with them to support them, or would you sever all ties? What if that person was the mother or father of your child? How would that shape your family’s life?

The number of adults in prison in Australia has reached an all-time high of around 43,000. More than one in four of those identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. There are now more children with a parent in prison than ever before. Current estimates are that one in twenty Australian children will experience the incarceration of a parent before adulthood, and this figure is much higher for Indigenous children – standing at one in five – due to the appalling over-representation of First Nations peoples in prison. Despite these staggering numbers, families are typically left to navigate the fallout of the sudden departure of a parent – and the transition into and then out of the correctional system – on their own. These families may come from some of the most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged populations in Australia. For most, this disadvantage becomes further entrenched by the incarceration of a family member.

In the academic literature, families of prisoners are often referred to as ‘collateral consequences’ of imprisonment regimes. As such, they are typically overlooked by criminal justice policies, sitting at the periphery of sentencing practices, prison programming and visiting or contact policies. However, there is strong evidence that their wellbeing is also directly impacted by incarceration. Stigma, trauma, grief, financial stress, social exclusion, anxiety, depression, parental stress, substance abuse and family instability are just some of the challenges faced by many of these families. Such chronic strain is likely to persist beyond the prison sentence, creating conditions for an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage. A 2018 study using the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) longitudinal survey found that families affected by parental imprisonment were far more socially excluded than households in the general population. Disturbingly, most households with children that experienced family imprisonment were still socially excluded five years later, while some households experienced a worsening of conditions. This demonstrates that childhood experiences of social exclusion can become entrenched, leading to long-term social disadvantage.

In their 2013 book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality (OUP), Cornell sociologist Christopher Wildeman and criminologist Sara Wakefield at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice draw on representative survey data to argue that the inequalities generated from mass incarceration, such as child mortality and racial disparities, are greater for the next generation than for the incarcerated men themselves. This suggests that we should no longer view families of prisoners as ‘collateral consequences’ of punishment and incarceration, but as the direct recipients of criminal justice system policies and practices.

This essay draws on the stories of three women; they are mothers of children with a father in prison. Their stories were obtained through a series of interviews over approximately four years as part of the Vulnerable Families Project, which commenced in 2007. This included a Queensland-wide survey of more than 300 fathers in prison, and in-depth interviews with approximately one hundred imprisoned fathers. From 2010, interviews were conducted with forty-three caregivers of children whose fathers were in prison, with follow-up interviews conducted with twenty-six of these. Names and other potentially identifying details have been changed.


SIMONE WAS A happily married mother of three when a tragic event saw her children’s father imprisoned. Neither parent had a criminal history, so the concept of prison was as foreign to them as it is to most working-class, white Australians living in suburbia. She still remembered the day when she sat her children down after school to tell them that their dad wasn’t coming home, that he would be in prison for the next few years. She said her youngest ‘screamed and just cried this awful sound. It was just this awful howling... He said we’re all going to fall apart and he was so distressed.’ She promised her children that she would keep the family together, that their dad would eventually come home and that they would have a normal life again. Meanwhile, on the inside she was crumbling. She didn’t consider herself to be a particularly independent person and she didn’t want to be a single parent to her distressed children. She had no savings and the bills quickly got out of control. Simone experienced depression. The first year was tough, but with the help of her extended family and other social supports, such as her local church, she kept the family going.

We first interviewed Simone in 2012, when her husband had six months remaining on his sentence. After nearly two years of weekend visits to the prison, of multiple phone calls a week, of superficial conversations about anything but life on the inside, and of being exposed to an environment that she didn’t want herself or her children to be part of, Simone wasn’t so sure she would cope with her husband’s return. He’d changed, and so had she. She’d learned to look after herself and her family and she’d cultivated a stable life with good supports. When we asked her about her husband’s impending release, Simone became visibly upset. She couldn’t imagine him living in their home again, being her husband and a father to their children. Despite all the visits and phone calls, she seemed to have ceased thinking about him as a member of their family and anticipated feeling miserable upon his return.

We interviewed Simone again in 2017, a few years after her husband completed his sentence and returned to the family. Following a lot of time spent trying to both remove the trace of prison from their lives and to reorient everyone’s place in the family, Simone reported she was ‘finally feeling that it’s back to how it should be… But it took way longer that I would have thought… At least two years…just for him not to be referring to [prison] all the time and bringing it up. Now it’s never, and it’s not a conscious thing by him, it’s just that’s it, it’s gone out of our lives.’

In his 2017 review of the part families of prisoners can play in preventing reoffending produced for the Ministry of Justice in the UK, Lord Farmer stated ‘a very simple principle of reform that needs to be a golden thread running through the prison system and the agencies that surround it…is that relationships are fundamentally important if people are to change’. He asserted that alongside employment and education, family should always be seen as ‘the third leg of a stool that brings stability and structure to prisoners’ lives, particularly when they leave prison’. Unfortunately, few prisons provide a welcoming environment for families, or partner with them leading up to release. Families regularly report feeling they are treated like second-class citizens when they visit prison, as though they are part of the problem, complicit in offending, rather than a vital source of support for prisoners during their imprisonment and after they return to the community. For many prisoners, there would be no option of parole without a family to return to.


TAYLOR WAS A single mum of two children when she first met her husband. He was in prison at the time and they met while she was visiting a friend. He had been in and out of state institutions since he was a child and had little experience of living independently. According to Taylor, prison was his safety net, a place to go when things weren’t going well and he needed to ground himself. He moved in with Taylor when he was released – but was back in prison less than a year later. ‘I knew who he was,’ Taylor says, ‘so I was aware that it was going to fail pretty much. So it was basically just helping him go through the steps and allowing him to know that he had a safety net and people around for him.’ They got married during his next period of imprisonment. He was then out for a period of two years, in which time they had two children.

During the birth of each child, her husband didn’t cope well and returned to his previous lifestyle, disappearing for periods of time. She described this time as traumatising, and she sought support – but couldn’t find any services to address the particular circumstances of a person whose partner is on parole. She was committed to helping him desist from offending and would have liked guidance on how best to cope with her circumstances. ‘It’s crazy the things they have to go through in there,’ she said at the time:

I’ve got to try to understand his way of life. Then I’ve got to try and adapt him to our way of life out here. Then…I have to focus on his drug problems and all the triggers…and his emotional problems, and if they’re triggers… I’ve got to be a million different people in one, rather than just a partner to be here.

When we first spoke to Taylor in 2013, her husband was in custody (on remand), awaiting sentencing for a breach of parole. Reflecting on the prospect of his eventual return home, she stated:

I’d probably like him to live at a different residence. Then work together as a couple, to sort of rebuild that trust and then move forward as a family. Because I feel like when he left and it was very quick… One minute he’s fine and the next minute, something happens in his mind… Then he’ll leave…

When he’s in jail, we talk on the phone. Things get sorted out… I’m peaceful when he’s there, because I know where he is and he’s safe… But the problem is parole, and he’s got nowhere else to go. This is his parole address. So if I remove the parole address, then he’s either stuck in prison or has to find a halfway house…which is very difficult… So it’s either he doesn’t come back at all, and sees his full time out, or I have to have him back and we just have to struggle on and hope that it works.

At the same time that Taylor was supporting her husband in prison, she was trying to be a source of stability and support to her four children, the youngest of whom cried in the night for his dad. She conveyed this grieving to her husband: ‘They’ve come home from the school with pictures of Daddy in jail and I’ve sent that to him…and it hurt him a lot. But I think he needed to see what he’d done to the children.’ Though Taylor had some family support of her own, she didn’t talk to them about emotional issues and was unable to find appropriate support services or counselling. ‘I actually think the most help and the most conversations I’ve had about it is with [my husband’s] parole officer,’ she says. ‘It’s probably a bit beyond what she signed up for, but when she got [him], she got me as well… If I ever have any concerns or I see any inklings or any changes in his behaviour…she’s the first one I ring and let her know.’

At the time of our first interview with Taylor in 2013 she expressed the hope that her children wouldn’t have to go through their dad’s return home and transfer back to prison again. When he’s home and things are good, she said back then, he’s a great dad and the kids adore him. But when we made contact with Taylor in 2016 her husband was again in custody, having been in and out of prison two more times. In anticipation of his next release, she said: ‘It doesn’t matter how many times you do it…you still get that anxiety because things are going to change again…and you’ve got to allow someone back in the house that you know ultimately could have destroyed your family unit.’

She described herself as tailoring the lives of her children to the fact that her husband may not be there. ‘I won’t get a job that relies on him to pick up the kids or something like that…because I figured if there’s consistency, then we’ll be fine… It’s not a way to live, but it’s the way we live.’


NOT ALL FAMILY members feel the same way about providing support to someone in prison. For some, what started as a love for, and a belief in, their partner became a cycle of empty promises and dependence. When we first interviewed Kristy in 2012, a mother of two, her partner had just returned to prison after breaching parole within weeks of release. She was angry and upset and couldn’t understand why he had let his family down after such a short time. She wondered if returning to family life directly from prison was too difficult a transition, as he had a history of detention and imprisonment going back to his teenage years.

Over the course of the next few years he returned to prison several times, each time begging her to write, visit and send money for phone calls, and promising to be a good dad to her children when he got out. She eventually terminated the relationship and, following threats to her safety from prison, had a domestic violence order taken out against him. She went on to build a life for herself and her children and started her own business. She had plans to return to study.

When we talked to her again in 2016 her ex-partner was no longer in custody. Kristy had been forced to move from her home so that her former partner wouldn’t be able to contact her upon his release. Her new government-provided housing was significantly inferior to her previous home. She had been shamed on social media for her ex-partner’s offences, with suggestions made that her children would grow up to be like their father. This took an emotional toll, and she was forced to give up her business.

His release had brought about further deterioration in her wellbeing as she had become highly anxious about the possibility that he would make contact. Everything she’d worked for seemed lost. She also saw this happening to friends who had partners in prison: ‘I watch all these people’s lives just get ripped underneath them and it all starts from a bloke that gets out of jail and has nowhere to go,’ she says. ‘They need to feel independent where they can start making money and start living and being independent themselves… That’s all jail’s teaching these men – not to be independent. It’s to be dependent on women.’


THE INVISIBILITY OF families in the correctional system is part of the problem. Lord Farmer argues that families ‘need to be seen as a vital resource and the people who visit, who often make the Herculean effort to keep in contact, need to be treated as valued allies in the rehabilitation cause’. Both Simone and Taylor are prime examples of this. Both women spent countless hours and weekends talking with, supporting and visiting the father of their children. They did this for years. For most of this time, they also took their children on visits. Yet no one within the correctional system ever spoke to them about how they could best support their husbands upon release. No one gave them guidance on what to expect. No one talked to their husbands about returning to family life, what they expected and whether these expectations were the same as that of their families. Transition programs for men and women leaving custody typically focus on housing, employment, mental health, substance use and risks for reoffending; they are usually devoid of the interrelated issues to do with family relationships.

Simone described that initial period of her husband’s release as ‘awful’. They didn’t know how to connect, how to live together. It was their children and dog that helped them navigate this period, through many hours of walking and talking. For Taylor, release from custody is a period of being on edge, of looking for triggers and, among it all, trying to get to know each other again in a ‘normal’ environment.

Neither were treated like allies in helping their husbands return successfully to the community, yet they were critical in this endeavour. No one knows the early warning signs for reoffending better than Taylor. And both these fathers’ strong bonds with their children provide significant motivation for behaviour change. But Australian prisons are under-resourced when it comes to doing ‘family work’. Improving the quality of family contact and working in partnership for release requires an investment in infrastructure and staff.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that all families should be called upon to maintain contact with their child’s parent or to support them upon release. For some families, like Kristy’s, ongoing contact and expectations may be damaging to the wellbeing of the family on the outside. This is why it is important that any efforts in prison to involve families in the rehabilitation and release of the prisoner include an understanding of the family context and a respect for the wishes of the family.

The challenge is to integrate our understanding of the complex needs of individuals leaving custody with their identity as a parent and partner or ex-partner. This might be asking a lot of our correctional system, but we should not be prepared to send so many men and women to prison if we are not prepared to work with them effectively, to return them safely to the community and to support those families who, in turn, are offering support. At a broader social-policy level, we need to meet the diverse and complex needs of many families of prisoners to ensure they don’t become ensnared in an intergenerational cycle of risk, disadvantage and system involvement.

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