Sibling Imprisonment – the “forgotten victims”

Although prison systems are increasingly recognising the importance of prisoners’ families, attention tends to be on parental imprisonment, meaning those with a brother or sister in prison are left feeling forgotten and excluded. University of Strathclyde based researcher Dr Kirsty Deacon shares findings from her research* on the impact of sibling imprisonment and why more support and recognition is needed.

Sibling relationships can be some of the longest lasting in our lives, pre-dating those with partners and even friends from childhood, and continuing on after the loss of parents. Brothers and sisters share childhood experiences and signify a unique bond in our lives. Despite all of this, their importance in the lives of children and young people has not always been acknowledged and recognised.

For children and young people involved in the care system, this is beginning to change. While there has always been a presumption that siblings will be kept together where possible, this has been reinforced by The Promise, a new duty on local authorities around placement of siblings, and the recent ruling recognising the importance of siblings and their role within the Children’s Hearing System.

Where the separation of siblings is due to the intervention of the criminal justice rather than the care system, the same cannot be said. This is in no way equating the loss of a brother or sister when separated on entrance into care with what happens when someone serves a prison sentence, but is taken as an entry point to the lack of attention given to this within the criminal justice system and what the impact of this can be.

As part of my PhD I spoke to seven young people aged between 17 and 22 at the time of their interview who had brothers who were currently and/or had previously been in prison. This imprisonment had often happened when they were teenagers rather than younger children.

All spoke of having had close relationships with their brothers, and some of the dual sibling and parental roles that they had played in their lives:

“So to me my brother, my brother is like my dad” (Liam**)

The loss of this close relationship and the change from seeing their brother every day to at most once a week at a prison visit was keenly felt:

“I was lost when [my brother] was in here [YOI] a wee bit ‘cause, know what I mean, I used to just go oot wae him every day, you know what I mean, I used to muck aboot wae [my brother] aw the time. And you only notice that’s the, the true pal you have is your family kinda a wee bit” (Chris)

While the prison system does increasingly recognise the importance of prisoners’ families and provides opportunities for specific children’s visits, these can focus on the needs of younger children and those who are a child in respect of their age (i.e. under 18) and who are the child of the person in prison. Those young people with a brother or sister in prison can therefore feel forgotten and excluded:

“…I went to [the prison] and they were, like, ‘Oh, how old are you?’ I was, like, ‘Right, I’m 14,’ and they were, like, ‘Oh that’s perfect. So are you visiting your dad?’ and I was, like, ‘No, I’m visiting my brother,’ and they were, like, ‘Never mind, we can’t help you’” (Morven)

While Morven’s experience took place a few years ago, feedback from a recent stakeholder event showed that there is still a focus on parental rather than sibling imprisonment for children and young people.

Families can sometimes be seen only as resources to support those in prison and reduce reoffending rather than with their own needs and rights. This can result in a focus on adults, who are seen as able to provide that material or emotional support, or younger children who can be seen as a “hook” for change. Young people fall into neither category. Instead, they can be viewed in terms of risk, stigmatised and seen as likely to simply follow in their older sibling’s footsteps, as Morven’s example from her experience at school shows:

“I was just another McIntyre* […] so, where they start treating you like just another McIntyre, you behave like just another McIntyre” (Morven)

While there is still no official data on the numbers of children and young people with a parent in prison, there are at least estimates. The fact that these exist means that the problem is acknowledged, and there is a growing body of research on the overwhelmingly negative impacts of this for children and young people. There are no such estimates for those experiencing the imprisonment of a brother or sister, and consequently little recognition of the potential impact of this experience. This needs to change.

  • Where organisations come into contact with children and young people and are thinking about the impact of a family member’s imprisonment this needs to include siblings as well as parents (and in fact other family members as well).
  • Where opportunities are provided to help maintain relationships with an imprisoned family member, again, this needs to focus on where this may be a sibling as well as a parent, with a recognition of how these opportunities and provisions may need to differ to support different relationships.
  • Where support is provided to children and young people in respect of a family member’s imprisonment the inclusion of, and relevance for, those with a sibling in prison should be made explicit.

*This research was carried out before the COVID pandemic so does not reflect any of the extra difficulties and severe impact of restrictions and lockdown on the reduction or removal of prison visits altogether.

**Some young people in the research chose to use their own name while others are represented by a pseudonym. Where a first and surname are used the surname is a pseudonym.

About our blogger

Dr Kirsty Deacon is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow based at the University of Strathclyde in the School of Social Work and Social Policy. For more information about Kirsty’s research, click here.

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