While many can acknowledge that criminal justice is inseparable from social justice, there is an underrepresented community at the center of this overlap, in need of support. As an individual loses their liberty through imprisonment, the family members relying on them become more susceptible to financial insecurity and economic burdens. These families face new expenses in relation to visits and contact costs, often with decreased income. The England and Wales prison population saw an increase of four times from 1900 to 2020 from about 17,400 prisoners to around 80,000. Contrastingly, crime rates in England and Wales have decreased by more than half from 1981 to 2021. With poverty and imprisonment so interconnected, one may consider whether imprisonment is pushing more families below the poverty line.
The Families Behind the Data
As the British approach to crime and punishment concentrates on retributive justice, such as imprisonment, working-class families are suffering the consequences. The threat to financial stability is partially attributed to income reduction and families unable to rely on relatives’ earnings following imprisonment. Many family members find themselves leaving employment to take on full childcare responsibilities despite increased financial strain.
Research finds that some individuals who do not have children leave work due to the detrimental impact of the criminal justice system’s procedures on their mental health. Outgoings will also often increase for families, in the form of traveling costs for prison visits and phone calls. According to Action for Prisoners’ Families, in 2006, U.K. prisons charged prisoners a phone call rate “five times higher than the standard payphone rate.”
Further costs stem from financial support to the prisoner to make prison time more bearable, especially considering that almost 40% of young offenders aged 18-21 are in their cells for more than 22 hours a day, often in unsanitary conditions.
Impact on Women
Research shows that female family members primarily suffer the strain of poverty and imprisonment, regardless of the gender of their incarcerated loved ones. These women sacrifice both money and time to ensure the well-being of their relatives in prison.
Simultaneously, female caregivers tend to take on childcare responsibilities that are usually abundant, morally expected and heavily gendered, but with a significant lack of support and available resources. Furthermore, female relatives face an increased likelihood of negative stigma and tarnished identity. Many women are even condemned for the crimes of their imprisoned family members.
Impact on Children
Financial and emotional strain for families with an incarcerated co-parent can be even higher than when children experience separation from this parent due to loss or divorce. This links to a tendency for parental mental health to deteriorate in these circumstances, which can lead to lower-quality parenting, a lack of support and neglect.
Studies continuously show a strong association between family dysfunction and legal misconduct tendencies. As financial strain heightens and living conditions become more difficult, a cycle of crime may develop. Crime can also become generational, with children being more likely to offend when their parent has a criminal record. This pattern is intensified by frequent parental reoffending.
The Discrimination That Ethnic Minorities are Facing
The disproportionate impact of poverty on those from ethnic minority backgrounds exacerbates inequality in the U.K. Those who are white British are less likely to live below the poverty line than other ethnic groups. According to a study, in 2018, “50% of all Bangladeshis and 46% of all Pakistanis [fell into] the most deprived fifth of the population.”
The impact of imprisonment can intensify this vulnerability due to the multifaceted financial strain placed on families with incarcerated individuals. According to the Institute of Race Relations, law enforcement authorities are more inclined to subject racial minority groups to search and arrest procedures due to the discrimination and stereotypes entrenched in societies. Furthermore, law enforcement authorities are more likely to arrest racial minority groups for drug-related offenses in comparison to white people. These patterns, particularly over-policing and over-imprisonment, are due to institutional racism.
In 2017, the U.K. Ministry of Justice vowed to raise the standard of prisons and support the relationships between prisoners and their families while redistributing “funding for delivery of family services” in an even and appropriate manner. This involves prison reforms adopting a holistic focus that will help to prevent reoffending alongside wealth inequality.
Pact (Prison Advice and Care Trust) is a U.K.-based charity committed to helping prisoners and their families. In 1898, two Catholic legal professionals initially established the organization as the Catholic Prisoners Aid Society. Renamed Pact in 2001, the organization has helped more than 100,000 families maintain contact with relatives in prison over the last year. Pact also gave “relationship and parenting education” to 661 incarcerated individuals and their families, among other initiatives. Through the befriending project, trained volunteers knowledgeable about the imprisonment process and experience provide support to individuals with imprisoned relatives.
Efforts like these address the links between poverty and imprisonment, enabling prisoners and their families to access the resources for a better future.
– Lydia Tyler