Step by step towards child-friendly prisons

There are 9900 detainees in the Netherlands (CBS, 2019). This means that thousands of children in the Netherlands currently have a parent in detention. This has a huge impact: these children often experience emotions like grief, anger, shame and loss. ‘Research has shown that children find it scary to go to a prison to visit their parent in prison. A child-friendly prison helps stimulate meaningful parent-child contact. This allows the parent to continue his familial role during imprisonment. This is critical, both for parents in detention and for their children,’ notes Simon Venema, who is conducting doctoral research on this topic.


The right to family life

The international Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that every child,regardless of having a parent in detention, has the right to family life and contact with their father or mother. Based on this convention, one could argue that prisons have a duty to give attention to this. A team from Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen, under the direction of Petrick Glasbergen, is looking at how best to do this.

Petrick: ‘In our view, we can approach the topics of ‘child-friendly prisons’ and ‘parenthood in detention’ from three different levels. The first is a child-friendly prison, with features such as toys in the waiting room, and visitor rooms with child-friendly designs for regular parent-child activities. The second level is an active approach, with prison staff offering support in maintaining family relationships. The third level is an in-depth approach to stimulate the parental role, such as with a special wing for parents in detention. This is a comprehensive programme, with the specific approach tailored to each family.’

The Dutch prison system currently lacks a systematic approach to promote the well-being of children with a parent in detention. Inspiration may be found abroad. Parc Prison in Wales developed a family-based approach, comparable to the Family Approach programme, the inspiration for the Dutch project. Project leader, Petrick: ‘In 2012 we came into contact with this approach in Wales. Student exchange projects brought this idea over to the Netherlands. It was ultimately pitched to the boards of different correctional facilities (CF).The boards of the prisons in Veenhuizen and Leeuwarden were enthusiastic. They are now the testing grounds for the Netherlands.’

In 2017, Leeuwarden CF and Veenhuizen CF launched a Family Approach pilot. This programme goes a step further than just making a prison child-friendly. ‘Both now have builta father wing, where all fathers live together on the same ward,’ Petrick adds.

The Family Approach helps families to maintain meaningful contact during detention, to reduce the adverse impact of detention on family relationships. For instance, families can use Skype, visit each other in child-friendly family rooms, and participate in parent-child activities like crafts and sports. ‘The special father wings in Veenhuizen and Leeuwarden stimulate a culture of positive fatherhood in detention. Fathers do a lot together, and this ward has a more relaxed atmosphere than the normal wards. Moreover, fathers in detention have access to training and child-oriented workshops, and each family receives a family plan tailored to their needs. Participating families are selected carefully, with the interests of the child taking priority,’ explains Petrick.

Office in the CF

The Hanze office is located near the father wing in the Veenhuizen prison, where researchers, lecturers and students can meet with the target group and staff. The partnership between the prisons and Hanze University of Applied Sciences contributes to project development and monitoring by means of action research.

The original plan was to evaluate the Family Approach. Simon: ‘We gradually realised that there was still a lot of work to do and that the programme was not “done” yet. We asked ourselves whether it was appropriate to evaluate something that was undergoing such intense development. The emphasis of our project now lies on action research. This involves research in collaboration with people working in the field, to shed light on the relevant questions. We devise solutions together, which we apply in practice.’

The research is geared towards the Integrated Business Planning concept based on engaged learning. One striking feature is the high level of involvement from students. Simon: ‘We want to work towards a programme with a broad base of support in the institution. It should also be put together right legally, be rooted in the CRC and have a strong scientific foundation. We do this in partnership with the professional field. But without enthusiastic students, none of it would be possible.’

Petrick adds: ‘The students note that the professionals eagerly await the fruits of our labour. The project is impact-oriented. We don’t want it to end up collecting dust on a shelf. We want to actually do something with it. I still get questions from interested students who graduated a long time ago.’

Students from Hanze University of Applied Sciences dig into practical issues and make products that can help optimise child-friendly prisons. One example here would be the ‘family plan’. This is a dynamic support plan for the recovery of the whole family. Students make an active contribution here, such as by looking at other organisations focusing on families. Another example would be the website, made incollaboration with children. Here, children of detained fathers can find all kinds of information on what exactly dad is doing in the prison, watch videos and get in touch with organisations like the children’s helpline Kindertelefoon and the centre for expertise Expertisecentrum K I N D.

Petrick and Simon have been working on the practical research for several years now.Simon: ‘The subjects of “parenthood” and “child-friendliness” were largely untapped potential for the prison system. It’s a long process, but the correctional facilities in the north have already taken major strides towards making their sites more child-friendly. We want to develop a method book to guide other facilities through the different levels step-by-step.Based on the UNCRC, every prison should actually be working on child-friendliness. It also helps that other organisations are active in this area, such as Exodus, Humanitas, Gevangenenzorg Nederland and Expertisecentrum K I N D. We are always working to expand our partnerships with them.’

Petrick Glasbergen and Simon Venema are pioneers in child-friendly prison research in the Netherlands. The innovative nature of this research makes its actual impact difficult to estimate. Simon: ‘With this project, we hope to enhance the well-being of children with a parent in prison. In addition, it could reduce detention-related harm. We see cycles of intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour: an increased risk that children with a parent in detention will themselves end up in detention. With the family approach, the prisonsystem hopes to break this cycle.’

The ideal future for Petrick and Simon would include a procedure to weigh the interests ofchildren throughout the entire criminal justice process. ‘The criminal justice process mainly focuses on adults as individual offenders. It does not give proper attention to family situations. The criminal justice process is filled with things that have a major impact on children: arrest, going to jail, court hearings, just to name a few. It is vital to look at the criminal justice process as a whole and weigh the desires and interests of children at every point.’

Hanze Impact