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Saving the Children of Prisoners from Victimhood

January 26, 2017
Aida Ghajar
6 min read
Saving the Children of Prisoners from Victimhood

In December 2016, Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI), a non-profit organization based in the United States, launched a campaign to raise awareness about the educational needs of children of Iranian prisoners. It appealed to supporters to donate to educational programs, and reached its goal of $1,700 within a month. The funds will be used to make three 90-minute pilot video programs that will be presented to a selected US audience for feedback. Following this engagement with its US supporters, the organization intends to roll out educational videos for the children of prisoners in Iran and their families. 

According to Hamed Farmand, founder and president of COIOI, the educational programs have been prepared in cooperation with experts in family psychology and children at risk. The scheme will target three groups. “The first are guardians of the children,” he says. “They might be parents or other members of the family. The second group are parents who have been in prison and now want to reconstruct their relations with their children. But the third group are those members of society, especially the teachers, who spend a lot of time with children.”

Farmand himself was the child of a prisoner. “Twelve years ago, I suffered from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],” he writes. “My mother's incarceration played a big role in my diagnosis. Because of this victimization, I want to stand up for all the children who have suffered similarly. Three years ago, I started researching parental incarceration in Iran — where I was born — and in the United States, where I am living currently.”

Based on his own experience and research, Farmand says that a diminished self-confidence and anxiety are among the most important effects of having parents in prison. “When parents are in prison,” he says, “the child cannot express his feelings. He cannot talk about them and come to know them. As a result they feel that they are somehow guilty.”

The Risk of Hero Worship

He says that in Iran, people tell children whose parents are in prison for political reasons that his or her parent is in prison “to build a future for you.” As a result, the child comes to believe that if it were not for him his father or mother would not be in prison. “This does the biggest damage to the child’s self-confidence,” says Farmand.

In the case of political prisoners, Farmand says, this problem of “hero-making” can inflict further damage to children. “When hero-worship is involved, the door to having conversations with the child is closed,” he says. “When I was five and my mother was in prison, sometimes I was angry at her. Nobody asked me what I felt. They all wanted to persuade me to believe in their feelings or the feelings that they thought I should have. I even went so far as to think that if my mother died I would get more attention. Of course I neither could express my anger nor was given a chance to do so.”

Farmand says his campaign aims to change this, to give children of prisoners a better chance to express what they are going through. “If those who are in direct contact with the child know how to treat, understand and help the child then a big step has been taken for the child to leave this phase behind,” says Farmand. “Then the trauma will be remembered as an unhappy memory, not a perpetual burden and an open wound that will never heal.”

During the years that the parent is imprisoned, neither the child knows what his father or mother is experiencing, and nor does the parent know what the child is going through. For this reason, the traumas of prison do not end when the prisoner returns home. It is necessary to create an environment where the child and the parent can reconstruct their relations after a long period of separation when they were not involved in each other’s life. This is particularly important if the imprisoned parent is the mother and her emotions had been systematically exploited and manipulated in prison, a tactic guards can use to incite guilt. Often women prisoners are told things like “you are not a good mother.”

Anxiety is another trauma that affects children of an imprisoned parent. Children can become extremely distressed even when the situation does not warrant it. These anxiety attacks can even hinder the normal growth of the brain or disrupt the child’s ability to learn.

Among other traumas are violent behavior or, conversely, the tendency to self-isolate. It can even impact the physical health of the child. “Research has shown that the imprisonment of a parent leads to illnesses in the child such as heart problems,” says Farmand. “One of the most common physical traumas is an immune system disorder in the child. In other words, the body of the child loses its ability to defend itself against infectious diseases. For example, during those five years that my mother was in prison I was repeatedly sick.”

All this can adversely affect the child’s education or the child’s future relationships. Examples include an inability to build a relationship with a spouse, or inability to manage finances or impulsive marriages. And especially during adolescence, he or she is prone to fall into alcoholism and drug addiction. Of course, says Farmand, some effects might be more or less pronounced depending on the family’s education level or social class, but a high percentage of prisoners are ordinary people, so the threats facing their children is high.

“The Invisible Necklace”

Farmand believes that the conversations between these children and the adults must be shaped by the feelings and the needs of the children. He refers to a specific case. “The mother was incarcerated,” he says. “The father gave the child an ‘invisible necklace’ and told her if she would wear it before going to sleep she would dream of her mother. And the child indeed wore the invisible necklace at night and dreamed of her mother. Communication with these children must be conducted at the level of the child whose relationship has been cut off. We must find how to maintain that relationship so the child can safely leave this phase behind and when the time comes the relationship can be reconstructed in a stronger and closer manner.”

Farmand also refers to the cases of political prisoners Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Narges Mohammadi, whose children have had to deal with their incarceration from a very early age. “A healthy relationship between the child and the mother takes shape from birth until the child is five,” he says. “In the case of Narges Mohammadi, Nazanin Zaghari or ordinary prisoners the damage is amplified if the relationships are cut off during this period.”

Farmand says that in his own case, during the first five years of his life, his mother was busily engaged in political activities. When she was arrested her family had no news of her for eight months. His mother never read his memoirs of those days and never had an intimate conversation with him during visits to prison. Prison left both her and her children with a guilty conscience forever after.



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