Letter to Ministers Regarding Children Visiting Prisons
An open letter to Prime Minister John Key, Corrections Minister Judith Collins, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills
Last week I visited my brother in jail. University-like in its design, Northern Region Corrections Facility (colloquially known as Ngawha Prison) sits in a pleasant rural landscape near Kaikohe in Northland.
Having had my car searched for drugs and weapons, and had gifts of writing materials and books rejected because they lacked the required requisitions, I joined a number of women (mostly young Maori women) and their children through a series of screenings and searches to gain entry to the remand visitors area.
The mothers (and some grandmothers) were allowed to take only a nappy, wipes, bottle and stroller for their babies and toddlers into the visitors’ area. A sign on the door of this large space reminded the young mothers they were responsible for their children’s behaviour during the visit. Children were to stay seated in their allocated ‘pod’ (four chairs bolted to the floor facing inwards, with a numbered, approx. 25cm diameter table in the centre). They were not to wander - a rule the guards around the perimeter of the room would enforce.
Seated in our ‘pods’, we waited for our ‘prisoners’ (and we must remember these are remand prisoners) to come out. Dressed in fluorescent full-body overalls caught at the ankles and wrists, and zipped up the back, the men entered the room to excited cries of “Daddy!” as children ran to their fathers and were embraced. Then the family groupings settled into their approx. 1.5 hour visits.
I was appalled! Watching already stressed parents desperately trying to stick to inhumane rules that will do absolutely nothing to engender family cohesion (or rehabilitation, should prisoners be found guilty) was truly grueling. Having had four children myself, I know how hard it is to ‘contain’ toddlers. They are wanderers by nature. Yet there was no area for them to play - not one toy, not one book. No place for tired toddlers to sleep.
This is not about my brother. He’s the first person to say the only person responsible for him being in jail is him. He doesn't seek sympathy. But when his children visit, surely reading them a story and playing with them in a supervised environment would be the best thing for all of them.
Punishing children for the ‘alleged’ sins of their fathers is simply wrong and until this punitive approach is reviewed we cannot pretend we are truly interested in the welfare of all children.