For parents behind bars, pandemic cuts into visits from kids
The pandemic has been particularly hard on parents in prison as visits from their children have become sporadic
Nine-year-old Shadene's face lights up; her father who is in a Marseille prison has just appeared through a door on the other side of the boxy, tiny room. As he approaches, she stands, reaching to touch the window separating father and daughter. Automatically, his fingertips do the same.
Forty-five minutes later, a warden rings the bell. Visiting time is over.
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Kamel, 40, blows kisses to the little girl and two of his sons but heading back up the stairs to his cell at Baumettes prison in the southern French port city, his face darkens.
"It's too short, I don't have time to make the most of them, to give each of them some time," says Kamel, who is two years into an eight-year jail sentence for fraud.
On the other side, Shadene is fighting back the tears. "I'm happy to see him but I couldn't tell him about my school trip," she says. "I can see he's tired, he's not doing well," she adds.
Both their names, like all the prisoners and children quoted in this story, have been changed to protect their identity.
The visit on a Saturday in February is nothing out of the ordinary. AFP was able to witness it after gaining rare authorisation to attend prison visiting, as part of a more than 12-month investigation into parenthood from behind bars.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees a child's right "to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis".
It also stipulates that states party to the convention "render appropriate assistance to parents... in the performance of their child-rearing responsibilities".
Some 600,000 children have a parent in prison on any given day in the European Union, according to estimates by the Children of Prisoners Europe network. In France, the number is more than 95,000.
In the vast majority of French cases, children see their parents in the prison visiting room, which at some sites is large with no privacy and, at times, a guard present.
For France's independent body, the Defender of Rights, the best interests of the child are still not sufficiently taken into account in the country's prisons.
For children, visitation creates feelings of "insecurity", lawyer Marie Douris, who has studied parenthood in prison, said. "The adults talk about business, concerns at home. It leaves very little time for the child," she added. Such obstacles lead to "a relationship which wanes, becomes emptier over time, each behind an invisible wall".
The "wall", she said, only becomes bigger when detainees and their children constantly try to "protect the other" by concealing things like depression, problems at school, a fight with another inmate, or even the imprisonment itself.
For nearly two years, 36-year-old Magali hid the truth from her young daughter, Emma, fearing the effect it would have on her of hearing that her mum was locked up for four years. "I used to let her think I was in hospital," says Magali, who grew up with a father habitually in and out of prison. At the age of seven, "when she knew how to decipher (the word) 'prison' on the front of the building, I talked to her," Magali said.
Having encountered the prison bars on a weekly basis though, the little girl had already figured it out.
Family is key in helping a prisoner to think ahead to the future, said Baumettes prison director Yves Feuillerat. Kamel, for instance, has learned to read while in prison so he can write letters home to his children.
In Britain, where there are more children with a prisoner in the family than with divorced parents, authorities have taken this on board.
Under the Invisible Walls programme, prisoners get dedicated time with their children to do simple things like helping them with homework or giving them a bath.
Introduced first in south Wales, the scheme has widened out to other regions and reoffending rates have halved, a British justice ministry study has shown.
In Italy, according to a UN report, mothers are permitted to "serve part of their sentence at home, provided they have children under 10 years old".
But France has been criticised for hampering visiting rights and has been condemned several times by the European Court of Human Rights over prison conditions.
"Incarceration must not mean abandonment," psychologist Florence Duborper said. She heads a support group that helps prisoners and families in Marseille avoid a breakdown in contact.
Families have suffered greatly during the pandemic, which completely halted prison visiting for two months in France last year. Parent-child meet-ups outside of normal prison visits resumed in October but are sporadic.
Kamel no longer has the heart to see his two-year-old who cries behind the plastic barrier.
He's lost 20kg in a year. "I'm depressed. I haven't held my children in my arms for a year, it's too hard," he says.
FIRST PUBLISHED03.05.2021 | 12:04 PM IST