Relais Enfants Parents Romands director Viviane Schekter opened “Parenthood and Detention”, an interdisciplinary conference it organised in Lausanne on 18 November, by emphasising the need for further development of support initiatives for imprisoned parents and increased coordination among the various sectors involved.
“Stronger work relationships need to be forged, particularly with the prison authorities,” she explained.
Professors Marie Douris of Université Catholique de Lyon, a jurist, and Pascal Roman of the University of Lausanne, which contributed to the organisation of the event, presented their findings from recent research they carried out on imprisoned parents in France. They described how parenting in prison runs up against a series of obstacles, including the “self-depreciation” of the imprisoned parent, visits conditions ill-suited for children, difficulties in accessing quality visits facilities (e.g., Unités de Vie Familiale being accessible only to sentenced prisoners, not to remand prisoners or to sentenced prisoners housed in remand prisons); financial constraints that hinder an imprisoned parent’s ability to fulfil child-rearing obligations, which can further exacerbate pre-existing feelings of guilt, and other factors, including the imprisoned parent becoming dependent on the reaction of the child during visits, feelings of humiliation and injustice and a pervasive sense of a lack of privacy. The researchers also emphasised the need for greater awareness among imprisoned parents of their rights and underscored the existence of a range of legal entitlements that are not being systematically applied or run up against certain obstacles—imprisoned parents in France have the right to be kept informed of their children’s progress in school, for example, yet schools frequently disseminate the information digitally through a series of codes. Use of the Internet is not authorised in French prisons.
Jean Zermatten, director of the Institut International des Droits de l’Enfant and former chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child spoke about the rights of children with imprisoned parents, highlighting how children are punished when they are deprived of their parent as a result of incarceration, and how family ties must be maintained at all costs as per Article 9 of the UNCRC. He cited the suppression of visiting rights due to disciplinary measures as a violation of the rights of children. In Switzerland child rights “curators” can be nominated to defend the interests and rights of children, although Zermatten maintains that this remains the exception, as do child impact statements submitted to judicial authorities prior to sentencing. (The latter holds true across Europe.) REPR presented its pioneering support initiatives for imprisoned parents and their children, emphasising the need to allow each individual the space required to adjust and reposition him or herself in relation to the imprisonment, and in particular to avoid imposing any kind of norms or judgment in terms of parenting.
The good practice currently being carried out to support parents and children among the member organisations of the COPE network was presented by director Liz Ayre, who highlighted COPE’s priorities, ethical framework and perspectives. The day concluded with a roundtable that explored prison and probation issues in the increasingly difficult Swiss context, with security concerns on the rise that could threaten the good practice currently in operation and destabilise the constructive progress being made. Panel members stressed the need for the important roles that prisoners’ families play to be recognised from the onset of the prison sentence, and not only towards the end of the sentence when resettlement issues are addressed.