A new report is urging policymakers to improve contact between children and their incarcerated parents by embracing technology in prisons.

According to researchers from UNSW Canberra, the University of New England, and the Australian National University, improved in-cell communication can provide opportunities for continuous engagement with family during incarceration, and could see better outcomes during a detainee's post-release transition and re-entry into the community.

UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group’s Dr Caroline Doyle says that more needs to be done to address the needs of children whose parents are in prison.

“The lack of government oversight has led to children of incarcerated parents being dubbed ‘invisible’ or ‘forgotten’ victims,” Dr Doyle said.

“Children who have a parent in prison can experience a range of vulnerabilities, such as poor mental and physical health and are at greater risk of experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage and exposure to adverse childhood experiences including violence and household abuse.

“Those who are particularly at risk are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are more likely to experience parental incarceration than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”

According to Dr Doyle, maintaining communication during imprisonment through telephone, email, mail or face-to-face visits is linked to stronger adjustment outcomes for detainees and their children.

“Technology does hold promise in terms of a range of interventions to connect children with incarcerated parents,” Dr Doyle said.  

The researchers used the ACT's Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) as a case study in the recently published paper.

Designed to be a ‘human rights prison’, the researchers said the AMC should be encouraging connections with family as a benchmark for rehabilitation and release preparation under the ACT Standards for Adult Correctional Services.

“Unfortunately there has been little movement towards recognising the experiences of children in the ACT when compared to other jurisdictions,” Dr Doyle said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic served as a unique opportunity for prisons to adapt to new challenges and change, and some positive steps were taken during that period.”

The report found that prior to the pandemic, children of incarcerated parents faced challenges such as incompatible visitation hours, limited public transport to the AMC, and the high cost of phone calls limiting telephone calls.

During the pandemic, in-person visits were suspended and video visits were introduced.

“The introduction of video visits was important for ensuring detainees could stay in touch with their loved ones,” Dr Doyle said.

According to recommendations from the researchers, in-cell communication technology – such as tablets – is one way forward in improving the accessibility of prison communication between children and their parents.

“The use of tablets can reduce the time, stress and financial costs of travelling to prison,” Dr Doyle said.

“Tablets provide opportunities for detainees to have continuous engagement with family through calls outside of standard visiting periods and can offer opportunities to support them during their post-release transition.”

Dr Doyle said that while maintaining a connection between children and their parents in prison is challenging, embracing technology paves an important path towards recognising the needs of the children.

“We encourage policymakers to continue to make changes to address the ‘invisible victims’ of the criminal justice system and restore familial ties with their incarcerated parents,” Dr Doyle said.

About the researchers

The research article and its recommendations were written by Joanna Cui (ANU Law Graduate), Dr Caroline Doyle (UNSW Canberra), and Dr Lukas Carey (University of New England and Manager of Reintegration – Outcare).