Parental and close family incarceration

Dr Kirsten Besemer1, Ms. Krystal Lockwood1, Ms. Rebecca Wallis1,2, Ms. Holly Smallbone1,3
1Griffith University, Mt Gravatt, Australia, 2TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, 3Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, Faculty of Law, VU University , Amsterdam, Netherlands

How do mothers ‘do time’? – Understanding variation in mothers’ experiences of imprisonment.

Rebecca Wallis, Susan Dennison and Lisa Broidy

This presentation draws on in-depth interviews with 60 mothers imprisoned in Queensland. It explores how mothers’ experiences of imprisonment are shaped by the interplay between maternal

self-concept and role performance, and how this interplay is conditioned by mothers’ personal and social characteristics and their maternal histories prior to imprisonment. In particular, this

exploration reveals that imprisoned mothers are a heterogeneous group, who are ‘doing time’ in a number of different ways. Some mothers are concentrated on maintaining an already well-

established maternal identity during imprisonment, whereas others are primarily trying to cope with trauma and loss arising from their maternal histories. Some are actively working to reclaim and

transform their maternal identity. Other mothers exercise little maternal authority during imprisonment, but rely instead on family to facilitate and support their maternal relationships. This explains differences in maternal role performance during imprisonment, and reflects variation in maternal self-concept and agency. It also demonstrates the importance of social and institutional

contexts in shaping motherhood, both in prison and over time. This study helps to deepen our understanding of the range of maternal experiences in prison; shines light on key factors and interactions that shape patterns of variation; and has implications for the range of supports required to be more responsive to the needs of mothers.

Challenges and benefits of gradual release programs for the wellbeing of children of prisoners

Holly Smallbone, Susan Dennison, Stefano Occhipinti & Catrien Bijleveld

A recent body of research on parental imprisonment has identified a number of benefits of parent-child contact for children’s wellbeing, parents’ recidivism rates and parent-child relationships. Additionally, this research has described some of the challenges associated with this contact. However, most of these studies have been conducted in closed prisons, where contact is restricted to limited scheduled visits and costly phone contact. More research is needed to examine the benefits and challenges of contact within open prisons (i.e., those with fewer security restrictions and more opportunities for family contact) for imprisoned parents and their families. In the Netherlands, open prisons provide opportunities for gradual release, where prisoners can return home every weekend in the final stages of their sentence. However, little is known about how children and parents experience this transition. In this paper, we draw on semi-structured interviews with 21 parents serving the last three months of their sentence in an open or half-open prison in the Netherlands to qualitatively examine the challenges and benefits of gradual release programs for parents and their children and the extent to which this process introduces new elements of risk or protection for children’s wellbeing. We discuss our findings in the context of implications for prison policy and program development to support the needs of children of prisoners.

“Prison journeys” – Exploring the distances between prisons and prisoners’ family members

Kirsten Besemer, Lacey Schaefer & Susan Dennison

Regular family visitation is often associated with improved outcomes for offenders. However, due to Australia’s vast geography, prisoners and their families may be hundreds of kilometres apart. Qualitative research shows that long travel times and high travel costs can be a great burden on prisoners’ family members, who may thus be less likely to visit regularly.  Indigenous Australians, who are more likely to live in remote areas, are especially disadvantaged by the metropolitan locations most prisons are in. This study uses data from an Australian survey to explore what kinds of families, in which Australian States, are most severely affected by long travel distances. We consider how such travel distances could affect prisoners’ re-entry processes.

Supporting First Nations families with a parent in prison: the experience of Belonging to Family

Krystal Lockwood, Susan Dennison, Anna Stewart, Lisa Broidy, Troy Allard and Nick Tilley

With the rise of the overuse of incarceration, collateral consequences of incarceration are infiltrating Australia. For First Nations families this is endemic, where the number of families impacted are rising as the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous rates of imprisonment widens. The experiences of families that have a parent in prison are diverse; but we do know that families are more likely to be disadvantaged across many social and emotional well-being measures before, during, and after incarceration. One way we can learn how to provide effective support is by running theory driven evaluations of programs that are specifically designed to support families with a parent in prison. In this presentation, I will discuss the findings from a realist evaluation of Belonging to Family. Belonging to Family was established in 2011 to support Koori families as a parent returns home after being incarcerated at the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre, New South Wales. I focused my evaluation on how the program worked, drawing upon administrative documents, observational data, and interviews with participants and stakeholders. In this presentation, I will discuss; how the small-scale program addressed complex issues within complex systems; how the program supported diverse experiences between participants; and discuss the importance of incorporating First Nations values in the program as well as the evaluation. I will demonstrate how these observations should influence policies, programs, and practices impacting First Nations Peoples as well as families impacted by incarceration.


Rebecca Wallis is an Associate Lecturer at the TC Beirne School of Law, and a PhD candidate at Griffith University. Rebecca’s research explores how criminal law theories and principles play out in policy and practice, and how these shape the operation of the criminal justice system in intended and unintended ways. Her doctoral thesis explores maternal pathways through imprisonment.

Holly Smallbone is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, Australia, in conjunction with the Netherlands Institute of the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NSCR) and VU University. Holly’s research focuses on the impact of parental imprisonment and children’s wellbeing, with a specific focus on the parent-child reunification period when a parent is released from prison.

Kirsten Besemer is a Lecturer at Griffith University. Her research uses representative national Australian data sources to identify short- and long-term effects of imprisonment on prisoners’ family members.

Krystal Lockwood is a Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr women who grew up in Armidale, NSW. She completed a Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice (Hons), MSc in Evidence Based Social Intervention, and is currently finishing her PhD at Griffith University focusing on supporting First Nations families with a parent in prison.


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