• Brain City Ambassador Prof. Dr. Selin Arikoglu, Professor of child and youth welfare at the Catholic University of Applied Social Sciences Berlin (KHSB Berlin)

    Giving a scientific voice to the relatives of prisoners

A guest article from Brain City Ambassador Prof. Dr. Selin Arikoglu, Professor of child and youth welfare at the Catholic University of Applied Social Sciences Berlin (KHSB Berlin). In her research, she deals with the life biographies of relatives of detainees. The goal of these studies and the interdisciplinary courses she conducted at the KHSB Berlin: To derive recommendations for action from the scientific findings – for social work and cooperation between the judiciary and child and youth welfare services.

Relatives of people who have committed crimes are underrepresented in academic and social discourse. Compared to detainees, they receive little interest in research. This may be due to the fact that socially, in the media as well as scientifically and politically, the delinquent behaviour of a person is in the foreground. For this reason, I conducted biographical-narrative interviews with relatives – sisters and children – of detainees in order to give them a scientific “voice” as those affected. The interviews were conducted according to G. Rosenthal in 2022. The final results are expected to be published at the end of 2023. This guest article highlights some of the lessons learned.

What do the relatives of offenders experience?

The legal provision defines relatives of offenders according to § 11 para. 1 of the Criminal Code as follows:

“Relatives and relatives by marriage, spouse, life partner, fiancé, siblings, spouse or life partner of siblings, siblings of spouse or life partner, even if the marriage or life partnership that established the relationship no longer exists or if the relationship or affinity has expired.”

Due to the crimes committed by their relatives, the other family members are often placed in the context of the criminal behaviour in the media and society. In addition, they are unintentionally exposed to the corresponding social and family demands and expectations – due to the imprisonment. Life partners have to cope with the new life situation as single parents on their own; they “function”. The previous coexistence is interrupted ad hoc by the imprisonment, which inevitably creates a new social space. Stresses and strains must now also be dealt with independently, because not all events and problems can be discussed with the life partners within the framework of the short visiting times in prison.

Children of detainees

The imprisonment of a parent places a considerable burden on children. They need care to be able to develop a social bond with their parents.

  • However, children are often unintentionally left to different people for care because visiting times cannot be planned in the long term. They constantly ask: “Where is mum, dad, grandpa, grandma?” In order not to burden them emotionally, the absence of imprisoned relatives is often justified with “activities away from home”.
  • The imprisonment of their relatives, especially if it is their father or mother, isolates children socially. They experience a painful loss at the same time, as evidenced by the following statement from a child I interviewed: “Because my father was imprisoned, I lost all my friends, they all bullied me and said: “Your father is a criminal. We are not allowed to play with you. That’s what they used to say to me, I was always the victim of bullying”.
  • Early childhood/school development opportunities are also affected by the social environment and the absence of the imprisoned parent, as the following example suggests: “At some point people started standing in front of our door and threatened my mother with a gun. Luckily I was in kindergarten and my siblings were in school,” said another child interviewed.
  • Children of detainees usually live with a person who has custody and do not want to burden them with their emotional experiences. Instead, they usually try to manage the situation on their own, which is not always successful: “I didn’t think about the fact that my father could pose a threat to the public by selling drugs, for example, because I didn’t know that as a child. I just didn’t want to understand it at all.” In this phase, they hope to get the missing support and attention from their peer group, which may result in deviant behaviour such as using drugs: “(...) unhappy, I consumed drugs with other people. We drank.”

What influence can child and youth welfare have?

In order for them to be able to come to terms with their experiences in a preventive manner, children of detainees as well as their guardians should receive educational support before, during and after their time in prison. To this end, the child and youth welfare services should offer needs-based services.

  • An example is the first encounter in the prison with the imprisoned person. The children usually do not know what to expect: The fenced entrance area, the checks before the visit by uniformed prison officers etc. has a frightening/intimidating effect on the children. In the penal institutions, child-friendly treatment during controls (before a visit) should be ensured. In addition, the children are burdened by the fact that the visit takes place in a room with other detainees/relatives.
  • Relatives of detainees could be met with more empathy in order to reduce impending fears about the prison system. There is a fundamental lack of transparency towards the relatives in this regard. They should also be more involved in prison planning, especially in preparing for release.
  • The reunification of those affected after release is sudden. This can have a stressful effect on everyone involved, because emotional distance has been experienced in the years of physical separation. Low-threshold preventive offers such as group measures for relatives can be used as a starting point to deal professionally with the experiences described above or to offer the necessary support. “My goal is to lead a quiet life without the police, court hearings and all that stress,” says the sister of one of the detainees.

Volunteers are involved in charitable associations, including OYA e.V, which I founded, and they accompany, advise and support those affected – both offenders and their relatives – in their often traumatising experiences. “And then I remember very clearly that somehow everyone shouted: Get on the floor, on the floor! And put guns in our faces with torches. Only then did I check, that it was the police,” recalls another interviewee (the detainee’s sister).

It would make sense, for example, to be accompanied in official matters (e.g. making contact, appointments), referral to further advice centres (e.g. debt advice), advice on the role of a single parent, (e.g. “How do I bring up my child?”) or in the mediation of further offers of help.

In principle, voluntary commitment brings more attention to the issue of delinquency – and therefore also to the relatives of prisoners – in society as a whole. For these reasons, the association OYA e.V. will also be located in Berlin in the future.

What can science do?

As part of preventive measures, further scientific studies (evaluations) could be drawn up in order to expand preventive offers. Teaching events in the universities are another important building block in this context. At the KSKB I have initiated courses that show the practice-oriented cooperation between the judiciary and children’s youth welfare with scientific support. In the seminars, students are given the opportunity to deal with the fields of action of “child-youth welfare, delinquent work” both theoretically (legal basis, organisation and structure of social services) and practically. They are encouraged to think critically and reflect on their personal attitude to the topic. Methodologically, in addition to the theoretical examination of the topic, they are also given the opportunity to talk and discuss with (former) detainees/offenders and their relatives (children), care leavers (Editor’s note: young people who have spent part of their lives in residential youth care – for example in residential groups or foster families – and are in the process of building an independent life) or professionals from the field.

One example is the course “Creation of de-escalation training with offenders and students”, the concept of which was developed jointly by students, former offenders and relatives. The seminar is to be used in the future as a preventive measure in different institutions through OYA e.V.


Scientific studies and courses on the experiences of relatives of offenders are essential, on the one hand, to make prisons more professional in dealing with relatives and, on the other hand, to be able to make needs-based offers to children’s youth welfare. From my point of view, an interlocking between the judiciary and child and youth welfare with scientific support is absolutely necessary in order to improve the situation for everyone involved and thereby also for society as a whole. In order to bring about this interlocking, I offer workshops and further training for employees of prisons and children’s youth welfare. As a cosmopolitan and diverse city, Berlin can play a pioneering role here.


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