If your parents are in prison, you may be too

A person is six times more likely to offend if they have a parent in jail.
Research shows that children with a parent in jail are six times more likely to offend themselves, writes Tom Cunningham.

On any given day in Australia, fathers and sons can be found kicking the footy back and forth or going for long drives along coastal roads.

Innocent pastimes that form the bond between parent and child and no doubt later inform that child as they grow into adulthood.

Joe (not his real name) has similar early childhood memories of bonding with his father and learning skills he would later use in life.

Only instead of footy and road trips, Joe and his father would clean guns, shaving off the serial numbers so they could be used and police could not later trace them.

“Drugs everywhere, money everywhere, rough people everywhere, stolen goods, that was how I grew up,” Joe says, dressed in his prison greens, speaking from a small white room in a Western Australian prison.

Joe is now serving time for aggravated gun charges, ammunition charges, a high-speed chase with police, drug possession and unlawfully obtained profits.

He is the son of one of the 17,200 prisoners in Australia who are parents, according to the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (VACRO).

By having a parent in jail, VACRO research shows he is six times more likely to offend himself.

Joe and his father were even raided by the police on the same day and spent time in the same prisons  –  something Joe says helped him to understand the prison landscape.

This story of intergenerational crime is not uncommon in Australian corrections facilities, with a VACRO study showing 40 per cent of adult prisoners in Victoria have a family history of imprisonment.

Attorney General of Tasmania Vanessa Goodwin, who conducted research on intergenerational crime in 2011, says the findings still stand.

Goodwin found if a child’s parents had both been to prison, their chance of not ending up in prison might be as low as 27.5 per cent.

Having two incarcerated parents has become more commonplace, with an Australian Government paper on Families of Prisoners finding 85 per cent of female prisoners are mothers to dependent children.

Goodwin’s paper also found that of the children with both parents in prison who had a criminal record, 67 per cent were likely to have been convicted for a serious offence.

As well as Joe’s dad being in jail, his mother was a heavy drug user who was also incarcerated.  Joe has been addicted to drugs since early childhood and was in the intravenous unit at just 13 years old.

More than 36,000 Australians are in prison, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data. But the number of children who have parents in prison is unknown as statistics are not collected.

A New South Wales study in 1999 found that on any given day 11,000 children have a parent in prison.

This number may have risen since then as the ABS found that the number of prisoners, sentenced and un-sentenced, has increased by almost 11,000 nationally since 2005.

Romy Same, a family counsellor with VACRO, says not keeping statistics makes these children invisible and, because of the stigma of imprisonment, a child’s grief over losing a parent to prison is treated differently to if the parent had died, making it less likely they will seek help breaking the cycle of crime.

Same says it would become much easier to establish a more holistic approach and target intervention for those children at risk if statistics on children with parents in prison were kept.

She warned though that many parents may not report their situation out of fear that their children may be taken away.

Goodwin agrees, saying there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to intergenerational crime and tools to identify those affected and provide support for them are needed.

As Attorney General of Tasmania, Goodwin has also asked the Department of Justice to consider collecting statistics on the number of children with parents in prison and the associated privacy issues.

Joe says early intervention may have helped him. He was relatively law-abidingearly on, even taking on the parental role for his sisters while his mother was either using drugs or “in a coma”, he says.

It was not until he moved back in with his father at 13 that he became surrounded by anti-social behaviour again.

When Joe was eventually arrested in 2015, his father expressed disappointment that Joe had committed crime, but also remorse for getting him involved in a life of crime.

While Joe says he decided, as an adult, to commit crime, he also says that that was what he saw his father do while growing up, and it was a big influence on his actions later in life.

Both Same and Goodwin say collaboration between the agencies – families, justice departments, health, education and the police – is crucial to combating intergenerational crime.

The Tasmanian Government is working closely with the Children’s Commissioner of Tasmania to determine how best to provide early intervention and support for children with a parent in prison, Goodwin says.

Meanwhile Joe has now been drug free for a year and is up for parole in June of this year, saying he doesn’t ever want to go back to prison.

He says he wants to keep connected with his mother and father but won’t be able to see them until he had made a fresh start.

“I’ve lost everything and I am ready to get that back now … and they understand that.”