Executive Summary

SHINE for Kids is pleased to provide a submission to the Queensland Productivity Commission Inquiry into Imprisonment and Recidivism.

Our submission will draw on over 30 years of practice, research and advocacy experience on the needs of children of prisoners and the role integrated family support and case management plays in reducing recidivism.

SHINE is making this submission because the criminal justice system in Queensland is not a system achieving its objectives. As it is well noted, imprisonment rates are rising, despite falling crime rates. As outlined in the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry on current trends, investment of 5.2 billion to 6.5 billion will be required to ensure that prison capacity is able to meet demand in 2025[1]. Most concerning is the high rate of reoffending and little evidence that the increases in imprisonment benefits the community. In fact, SHINE for Kids practice experience demonstrates an increase in imprisonment continues to harm children, families and communities far beyond the prison walls long into a child’s future.

When a parent spends time in prison, away from their family and community, it creates an adverse childhood experience for children which has lifelong impact. To fully understand the harmful effects of incarceration on the parent-child relationship, we must first recognise the importance of that relationship to a child’s healthy development, which is underscored by attachment theory. Attachment theory is rooted in the knowledge that children should experience warm, intimate, and continuous connections with their parents or parental figures in a way that produces satisfaction and enjoyment[2]. These relationships are crucial to a child’s lifelong physical and psychological well-being. Research suggests that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to have insecure attachments to their incarcerated parents and primary caregivers[3].

The Adverse Childhood Experience Study confirms that growing up experiencing an incarcerated household member – especially a parent – prior to age 18 leads to many negative health and behavioural outcomes. Parental incarceration is more than a temporary separation of child and parent, and incarceration affects children differently than other forms of parental loss (eg. divorce or death) because of the associated social stigma and the uncertainty surrounding the length of the separation[4].

Successive government have acknowledged that adverse childhood experiences have a lifelong impact on children. This has been recognised with a number of national apologies including the 2008 Apology to Stolen generation, the 2009 Apology to the Forgotten Australians and the 2018 National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Abuse[5].

Families affected by parental incarceration experience more trauma than most families, which can manifest as depression, anxiety, irritability, aggression, social isolation, difficulty sleeping, behavioural regression and an inability to regulate emotions and behaviours[6]. As a result, partners, parents and children of prisoners need the support of society, not just because of the key role they can play in offender rehabilitation, but also because of the hidden sentence they are serving, without having committed any crime themselves. Family members need to be acknowledged as potential assets who are essential to making prisons places of purpose, but they must also be treated with respect and decency by all staff in prisons.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait children experience parental incarceration at a greater rate than non-Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are placed in out of home care at a greater rate than non-Indigenous Australians. The over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women within the female prison population is of serious concern. Over one third (36%) of female prisoners in Queensland are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. As stated by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar “when there is a systems failure as there currently is with our incarceration system, First Australians always suffer a disproportionate impact. And the most vulnerable to this failure, the latest victims, are our women. The trajectory of incarceration in this nation shines a glaring light on the systemic inequality experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. [7]

Continued silence on this issue is costly – we cannot afford to ignore the link that multiple systems have and are continuing to fail the most vulnerable people in our community. Nationally and internationally decades of research and advocacy have described the school to prison pipeline[8], abuse to prison pipeline[9] and foster-care to prison pipeline[10]. The incarceration of primary care givers and the placement of children of prisoners into out of home care continues this cycle and ultimately results in today’s most vulnerable children being placed on a trajectory of being tomorrow’s criminals. As stated by Dr Kath Farlane, “many of the children taken into care following parental imprisonment will follow the same path, with young women in care likely to become pregnant and then have their child removed while they themselves are still in the care system. The risk is exacerbated if the young woman is involved in the justice system while in care. Research also indicates that for many women, the removal of their child precipitates their incarceration, rather than the incarceration leading to child removal, as is often assumed. It is the intersection of these systems that has the most significant and negative impact on children of prisoners”[11].

We can either perpetuate or disrupt this cycle. To disrupt this cycle we must provide support for these children and their families more effectively and earlier.

Read the full submission  QLD Productivity Commission Review – SHINE for Kids Submission


This submission in endorsed by SHINE For Kids Practice, Research and Advocacy Members including:

Community Restorative Justice Centre

The Community Restorative Centre (CRC) provides a range of services to people involved in the criminal justice system and their families. CRC is the lead provider of specialist through care, post-release, and reintegration programs for people transitioning from prison into the community in NSW. All CRC programs aim to reduce crime and break entrenched cycles of disadvantage, offending and imprisonment.

  • Dr Kath McFarlane
  • Professor Lorana Bartels
  • Dr Danielle Tracey

[1] Inquiry into Imprisonment and Recidivism Summary Report February 2019 p.16.

[2] Bowlby, J (1951) “Maternal Care and Mental Health.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 3 p355–534.

[3] Poehlmann, J, (2005)  “Representation of Attachment Relationships in Children of Incarcerated Mothers.” Child Development 76 (3 p.679–96.

[4] Arditti, Joyce, and Savla (2015) “Parental Incarceration and Child Trauma Symptoms in Single Caregiver Homes.” Journal of Child and Family Studies 24 (3) p 551–61.

[5] McFarlane, Kath (2019) Submission: Queensland Productivity Commission Inquiry: Imprisonment and Recidivism p.2

[6] Sack, William, and Seidler (1978) “Should Children Visit Their Parents in Prison?” Law and Human Behavior 2 (3): 261–66.

[7] Imprisonment rates of Indigenous women a national shame (2018) https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/stories/imprisonment-rates-indigenous-women-national-shame

[8] Crawley and Hirschfield (2018) “Examining the School-to-Prison Pipeline Metaphor” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology http://oxfordre.com/criminology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264079-e-346?print=pdf.

[9] Saada Saar, Epstein,Rosenthal and Vafa (2015) “The sexual abuse to prison pipeline: the girls story”. Human Rights Project for Girls Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality Ms. Foundation for Women http://rights4girls.org/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2015/02/2015_COP_sexual-abuse_layout_web-1.pdf.

[10] Lowenstein, K., (2018) “Shutting Down the Trauma to Prison Pipeline Early”, Appropriate Care for Child-Welfare Involved Youth, Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

[11] McFarlane, Kath (2019) Submission: Queensland Productivity Commission Inquiry: Imprisonment and Recidivism p.8