“A cup of tea and a fag”: doing family in the context of imprisonment.

dogbod2017, blog

by Dr Cara Jardine

Cara JardineWe are delighted to welcome Dr Cara Jardine to the CRFR research network. Here she reflects on her PhD research which examined what it means to be a family in the context of imprisonment, how these relationships are constructed and maintained, and how those affected by the imprisonment of a family member interact with the criminal justice system.

When a person receives a prison sentence, the impact upon their family can be profound and serious. In addition to causing considerable emotional distress, the imprisonment of a family member can disrupt housing, finances and childcare arrangements. Where the family choose to support the person in custody, this can come with significant costs as families attempt to provide the visits, phone calls, clothing and financial support that will lessen the worst pains of the prison environment. This often requires regular interaction between the family and prison itself, a process which can be confusing, time consuming and upsetting. Importantly, as many families affected by imprisonment are already experiencing poverty and social marginalisation, these additional burdens are often carried by families with few resources to spare.

Over the last ten years, families affected by imprisonment have become increasingly visible to both researchers and policy makers. This has led to a range of welcome initiatives to support families affected by imprisonment, such as designated children’s visits, homework clubs or family days. These often have children and partners at their centre, reflecting that much of this research interest to date has largely focused on nuclear models of the family. However, this contrasts starkly with the rapid changes in family life over recent decades, such as the increasing popularity of cohabitation, the legalisation of same-sex marriage, a growth of single person house-holds, rising numbers of “blended” families including children from previous relationships, and a growing recognition that friends can be an important part of family life.

Indeed, my own research with families affected by imprisonment in Scotland found that the impact of this form of punishment is felt across a wide range of relationships, including parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, step-children, and grandparents, often in highly individual ways. Rather than relying on nuclear models of the family when attempting to understand the experiences of families affected by imprisonment, it is therefore more fruitful to conceptualise family relationships as something we actively “do”.

Drawing on Janet Finch’s concept of “displaying family“, I argue that families affected by imprisonment adopt a range of individual and often highly creative ways for maintaining their relationships. These often go beyond the obvious strategies of visiting and making regular phone calls, although these are important. For example, families described establishing new routines, sharing favourite foods, maintaining old traditions or watching the same television programs as the person in custody as a means of fostering feelings of connection and closeness. These strategies also highlight the far-reaching impact of imprisonment, which can impact on the smallest and most seemingly unremarkable elements of family life, as one participant described:

“My dad says that he really misses having a cup of tea and a fag with my mum because that is what we did every morning, because my mum and dad didn’t do big things together – like they went on holiday but they didn’t go out drinking or anything so it was just a little thing that was part of their routine…..these are just little things but they mean the world to us”

However, examples such this are remarkable, as they demonstrate that some strategies for “doing family” (such as homework clubs) are more easily recognised as such than others (a cup of tea and a fag). The status and recognition of different ways of “doing family” are influenced by class, gender and race. Where families fit most comfortably into dominant (nuclear and middle class) narratives of family life, they are more able to continue the everyday practices that support these relationships. Consequently, it is vital that the most marginalised families are sought out and included in the growing discussions surrounding families affected by imprisonment amongst both academics and policy makers. A failure to do so contributes to a perception that the criminal justice system not only punishes these families who feel that they “do the sentence too”, but that it is indifferent to their voices, needs and experiences.

Cara Jardine; Constructing and Maintaining Family in The Context of Imprisonment. Br J Criminol 2017 azx005. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azx005 [open access]

About the Author

Dr Cara Jardine is a Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde.