Swallow, Amanda (2011) Children of prisoners: Negotiating and managing relationships, isolation and stigma through Virtual Communities. In: Understanding the Social World Conference 2011, 13th - 15th July 2011, University of Huddersfield. (Unpublished)

There is a general consensus amongst the relatively few current researchers that there are negative effects upon children who experience parental imprisonment. Effects highlighted by previous research include experiences of trauma, mental health issues and an increased risk of expressing anti-social behaviour. This issue remains largely hidden in the public sphere and the number of children who experience parental imprisonment each year is unknown within England and Wales; currently estimated at 160,000. There is no single statutory body dedicated to the care, welfare or support of these children.

With increases in Virtual Communities there are now Internet websites available for families and children of prisoners. This paper presents initial findings from a qualitative content analysis of discussion threads from such a website. Reasons for using this method of data collection are that children of prisoners are a diverse and difficult to reach social group. They may also be unwilling to discuss their ‘lived experiences’ candidly with those they may perceive as official/authoritative figures. This method of passive analysis allows for unobtrusive access to this social group, consequently ethical issues are significantly reduced.

This research, within a phenomenological framework, intends to explore how children of prisoners negotiate and manage relationships, isolation and stigma through Virtual Communities. From an initial look at discussion threads from these Virtual Communities, this paper will argue that the general consensus is potentially misguided. Unintended consequences of research that focuses upon the potential of children of prisoners to experience mental health issues and/or an increased risk of expressing anti-social behaviour may lead to these children being disempowered, rather than empowered. Indeed, once an individual and/or social group are labelled with the propensity to be ‘mentally ill’ and/or anti-social, their autonomy may be restricted and monitoring/surveillance justified.

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