Maintaining family contact during COVID-19: Describing the experiences and needs of children with a family member in prison

Catherine Flynn, Susy Harrigan, Lorana Bartels, susan dennison

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned ReportResearch


Executive summary:
Visiting by children has been regularly investigated in research about parents and family members in prison. This has predominantly focused on three aspects of visiting: (1) describing the extent of visiting; (2) describing the barriers to visiting; and more recently (3) examining the effects of visiting on outcomes for the imprisoned person, notably recidivism. There has been limited attention to these experiences in Australia in recent years. What is indicated, however, is that visiting can have a positive impact on children’s wellbeing and their connection to the imprisoned parent, as well as on the parent themselves, with regard to their parenting role in the short term, and on their return to the community.
Prison visiting across the globe has been significantly affected in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. By March 2020, prisons across the world began to limit or ban face-to-face visits, in an attempt to manage the health risks for a more vulnerable group, within typically overcrowded settings. In-person visits in all Australian prisons were cancelled at this time. While there has been some reintroduction of visits in some jurisdictions, at the time of writing, visits in New South Wales and Victoria, which hold one-half of the country’s prisoners, remain suspended. Formal understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on prisoners and their families, their coping during imprisonment and/or the processes of re-entry remains limited at this stage.

The aim of this report is to improve understanding of the needs and experiences of children with a family member in prison, with regard to visiting during COVID-19. The study was commissioned by SHINE for Kids, with a request to focus particularly on changes to visiting as a result of COVID-19 restrictions introduced in prisons across Australia, from March 2020.

Methods and participants
Data were gathered via an anonymous survey facilitated by online platform Qualtrics. The survey was available from June 17 – August 17, 2020. The link was distributed via a range of mechanisms: SHINE for Kids, other not-for-profit organisations across Australia, a range of social media platforms, as well as via professional networks. The survey gathered descriptive data on: the type and frequency of contact pre and during COVID-19; the challenges experienced with regard to maintaining contact; factors affecting visiting and other forms of contact; perceptions of the availability and quality of contact between children and the imprisoned family member; the perceived effects on children; carers’ self-reported coping, their observations on how both the children and the imprisoned family member were coping; as well as suggestions for improvements.

Eighty-four carers of dependent children with a family member in prison completed the survey. Although no official data exist on children and families who experience the imprisonment of a family member, our survey responses indicate that in general terms, the imprisoned family members of the survey respondents were broadly similar to the wider prison population, with regard to age, gender, legal status, and prior imprisonments. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people were somewhat under-represented.
Women under the age of 40 years, caring for one or two children whose father was in prison, were the dominant group of survey respondents. The children they were caring for were typically under 10 years of age, with 30.9% being of pre-school age. Boys made up around 60% of the overall group. The level of disability or chronic illness reported in children was considerably higher than in the community.
Two-thirds of respondents described the quality and availability of visits pre-COVID-19 as good or very good, with most describing weekly face-to-face contact, despite it being common for people to have to travel long distance for visiting. Those who needed to travel more than two hours to get to a visit were more likely to indicate problems with visiting, however, few people indicated any problems at this time.
Survey responses indicate that the introduction of visiting restrictions had created a range of difficulties for maintaining contact with the imprisoned person. Contact was assessed to be less available, and children were described to have less contact time with their relative (most typically their father). Although the vast majority of respondents stated that they had engaged in some form/s of non-contact visits (videoconferencing and phone calls mostly), there were problems. The impact of prison lockdowns and lack of offering of such options were noted. These visits were not seen to be particularly suitable for young children; they were too short in length, or were offered at times which were not appropriate for children. However, where these issues were addressed, for example the video visit allowing a parent to read a story to a child and participate in the bedtime routine, respondents saw great value in this visiting modality. Carers also outlined the benefits of offering visits by videoconferencing: reduced travel time and cost; and not needing to take children into a prison environment. Despite these positives, overall, respondents described the negative impact of visiting restrictions on the emotional wellbeing of both children and the imprisoned family member.

Overall, this study supports the use of video visiting, complementary to in-person visits, as a way of supporting family contact. However, a range of actions are required. This includes a commitment to face-to-face visits as the main form of contact, where possible, which should not be replaced with video visiting; specific attention to prioritising families who live considerable distances from the prison; tailoring visits to the needs of the child/ren – including the specific needs of children with disabilities, and consideration of skill building for effective use of videoconferencing with children.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationVictoria Australia
PublisherMonash University
Commissioning bodyShine for Kids
Number of pages88
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020


  • prison
  • prison visiting
  • children of prisoners
  • COVID-19

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