Global Perspectives on Prisoners’ Families

16 Jul to 17 Jul

Coordinators: Rachel Condry (University of Oxford), Shona Minson (University of Oxford), Peter Scharff Smith (University of Oslo), Mark Halsey (Flinders University)

Description of the meeting

Every year millions of families are affected by the imprisonment of a family member. Children of imprisoned parents alone have been estimated to number over two million in the Council of Europe countries (Ayre et al. 2014). Research on the effects of imprisonment on prisoners’ families has consistently found a range of negative outcomes, including economic and material effects, stigma, shame, problems with health, child behaviour, strained relationships, and social exclusion (reviewed in Condry and Smith 2018).

A ‘new wave’ of excellent scholarly work has emerged in recent years and has begun to address fundamental questions about the impact of criminal justice upon the families of offenders and the ways in which they are drawn into the realm of punishment. This research has appeared in several different countries especially during the last five years and explores how imprisonment creates, reproduces and reinforces patterns of social inequality. Prisoners’ families have only really begun to receive attention from criminologists in the past couple of decades, and interest has built slowly considering the number of people affected – many millions in the US, for example, and hundreds of thousands in the UK. Much earlier work on prisoners’ families was concerned with identifying the difficulties they faced and how they might be addressed through policy. In more recent years, studies have begun to explore deeper theoretical, legal and sociological questions which have important implications for criminology and criminal justice, the sociology of punishment, and the broader study of social justice and social inequality.

This workshop capitalizes upon an existing network of scholars working in this field that has developed over the past five years. The network currently has twenty members and has explored these deeper theoretical, legal, and sociological questions through annual panels and roundtables at international conferences, two workshops at the University of Oxford (in 2015 & 2017), and a book published by Oxford University Press and edited by two of the applicants (Condry and Smith 2018). These five years could be understood as the first stage of our work, culminating in the publication of this edited collection in November 2018. In the book we reflect on the composition of our group and its limited global reach:

“Our approach [in this volume] is by definition international – contributions are from eight countries – but this is dominated, beyond Europe at least, by English-speaking countries where most work on prisoners’ families is currently produced. A challenge for the future will be to expand our knowledge of the wider impact of punishment on the family beyond these countries, and particularly throughout the Global South.” (Condry and Smith 2018, chapter 1).

We might further add that our European contributions are primarily from Northern Europe (the UK and Scandinavia) with only one contribution from Southern Europe (Portugal). In the second stage of our work, we aim to expand our network and our collaborations beyond these English-speaking and Northern European countries to include more contributors from Southern Europe, and across the globe (particularly Asia, Central and South America, and Africa). This workshop will be central to this endeavor, providing a space for dialogue between network members to really interrogate and explore the continuities and discontinuities in the experiences of prisoners’ families globally.

At time of writing, it has only been three months since the edited collection was published, so the global project is in its infancy. We have so far identified six scholars who have conducted research on prisoners’ families in India, Japan, Argentina, Israel, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico (included in the list of participants). We are struck by how much of the scholarship on prisoners’ families is produced in small number of countries and it has been very difficult to track down work in Africa and Asia. In the seventeen months between now and the proposed workshop date we will identify prisons scholars in another six countries with an interest in developing work on families of prisoners, and work with them, providing the resources of the network, to produce data and reflections in time for the workshop in Summer 2020. For example, we have identified a group of prisons scholars in Africa with an interest in doing just this. Furthermore, if any new members are focusing on a particular aspect of the impact of imprisonment on families, we will connect them with existing network members with shared expertise, with a view to sharing knowledge and possible collaboration.

Chapters in the edited collection focused on a wide range of topics, including prisoners’ families and social justice, parental incarceration and inequality, gender dynamics among couples, childhood inequality and social exclusion, human rights, legitimacy, the reach of penal power, intergenerational impact, stigma, the impact of long-term imprisonment, and prison visiting. Current network members are at a range of career stages, from doctoral and recently postdoctoral to established professor, and we would expect new members to be similarly diverse.

The workshop will explore similar themes but through a global lens, addressing the following questions:

  1. How are families of prisoners affected by imprisonment in different countries? What are the continuities and discontinuities? We know that the current body of research is often in agreement about the range of negative effects on families – how does this vary between different penal systems?
  2. How are these experiences influenced by the socio-cultural context, the economy, or political systems and histories? For example, how do cultural dynamics of stigma and shame play out? How does the reach of punishment intersect with poverty, or with race or gender?
  3. How does this help us to understand the impact of punishment on families and to address bigger questions of the purpose of punishment, human rights, and inequality and social justice?

An edited collection will be produced based upon the workshop contributions.

Ayre, L., Philbrick, K., & Lynn, H., Eds. (2014). Children of Imprisoned Parents: European Perspectives on Good Practice, 2nd ed.

Condry, R. and Smith, P.S. eds. (2018) Prisons, Punishment and the Family: Towards a New Sociology of Punishment? Oxford University Press.

For more information: 

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