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Introducing in-cell communication technology such as tablets in corrective services around Australian would better support the children of incarcerated parents and has the potential to drive down recidivism, a new report has found.

The study, put together by researchers from some of Australia’s top universities, suggests that improving contact methods would boost engagement with family during incarceration, and could result in better outcomes during a detainee’s post-release transition and re-entry into the community.  

Rethinking prison visitation for children with incarcerated parents: Lessons from the Australian Capital Territory, explores the “unique vulnerabilities” faced by children who experience parental incarceration, and makes recommendations for connecting children with their parents in prison.  

UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group’s Caroline Doyle says maintaining communication during imprisonment through telephone, email, mail or face-to-face visits is linked to stronger adjustment outcomes for detainees.  

Doyle said more needs to be done to address the needs of these children, who can experience poor mental and physical health and are at greater risk of experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage and exposure to violence and household abuse.  

“Technology does hold promise in terms of a range of interventions to connect children with incarcerated parents. The use of tablets can reduce the time, stress and financial costs of travelling to prison,” Doyle said. 

“The lack of government oversight has led to children of incarcerated parents being dubbed ‘invisible’ or ‘forgotten’ victims. 

“Those who are particularly at risk are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are more likely to experience parental incarceration than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.” 

The researchers, from UNSW Canberra, the University of New England, and the Australian National University discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on prison communication due to the suspension of face-to-face contact visits and the introduction of non-contact audio-visual (AVL) “visits”. But the pandemic also presented an opportunity for corrective services to see how visits can be adapted in a post COVID world. 

UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group’s Caroline Doyle UNSW Canberra Public Service Research Group’s Caroline Doyle

Technology does hold promise in terms of a range of interventions to connect children with incarcerated parents. The use of tablets can reduce the time, stress and financial costs of travelling to prison.

The report refers to the “overwhelmingly positive feedback” from both detainees and prison staff about the use of tablets currently being trialed in NSW prisons. In-cell technology has also been trialed and supported in Victoria, although this is limited to instant messaging services only and not for calls or audio-visual link (AVL).  

“Tablets provide opportunities for continuous engagement with family through calls outside standard visiting periods. On a national level, we recommend corrective services see the benefit of [this technology],” the report states.  

The report uses the ACT’s Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) as a case study as the first, and only, prison in Australia designed to follow a human rights framework, with regularly reviewed and publicly available reports on its compliance with human rights benchmarks.  

Opened in 2009, the AMC has been described as having the potential to become a “national benchmark for correctional services” and a model that other jurisdictions may learn from.  

The report found that prior to the pandemic, children of incarcerated parents faced challenges such as incompatible visitation hours, limited public transport to the AMC, and the high cost of phone calls limiting telephone calls. During the pandemic, in-person visits were suspended, and video visits were introduced. 

As of November 2022, visitors were required to arrive at least an hour before their scheduled visit to undergo rapid antigen testing on-site. This has meant some families must spend a “significant portion of the day” to attend a visit and some families have been refused visits due to lateness.

“The limited AVL availability and lack of alternative communication methods, such as accessible telephone calls or in-cell communication alternatives, continue to pose limitations for family contact during the periods where in-person visits are unavailable,” Doyle said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic served as a unique opportunity for prisons to adapt to new challenges and change, and some positive steps were taken during that period.”

Doyle said that while maintaining a connection between children and their parents in prison is challenging, embracing technology is vital in recognising the needs of the children.

“We encourage policymakers to continue to make changes to address the ‘invisible victims’ of the criminal justice system and restore familial ties with their incarcerated parents.”