Book Review: Telecommunications Law and Regulation in Nigeria

‘This is an adapted version of the book review by the same author, Dr Peter Chukwuma Obutte, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license in Issue 23 (June, 2019) of The African Journal of Information and Communication (AJIC), 23, 1-5. https://doi.org/10.17159/2077-7213/2019/n23a6′.

Uchenna Jerome Orji’s new book takes on the Herculean task of discussing and analysing the full range of laws, regulations and policies that govern the Nigerian telecommunications industry. Developed as an expansion of  his PhD thesis titled: A Critical Review of the Legal Regime for Telecommunications in Nigeria (2017),[1] the volume contains eleven chapters and a Preface, preceded  by a Foreword written by Prof.Umar Garba Danbatta, CEO of the country’s telecommunications regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to telecommunications and its regulation. Orji traces the early history of telecommunications regulation in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the general principles that governed the early regulation of the industry in those countries. He discusses ex ante and ex post regulatory approaches, and common regulatory institutional designs, highlighting both advantages and disadvantages of various approaches and designs. This first chapter also outlines elements required to ensure a regulator’s independence, and discuses telecommunications as a field of law. This chapter thus provides the reader with a background on telecommunications and its regulation.

In Chapter 2, Orji presents an overview of the Nigerian telecommunications industry, covering both historical and contemporary elements. The historical account is divided into four periods:

  • the British colonial era, 1886-1960
  • and early post-colonial years, 1960-1985
  • the onset of commercialisation and liberalisation, 1985-1999
  • the full liberalisation of the market, 1999-2017.

This chapter provides a detailed and interesting narrative as the historical development of the industry is placed in well-defined timelines. This helps the reader to follow through on the policy and regulatory developments that took place in the industry. A key element of this chapter is its discussion of the protracted process of privatising the state-owned Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), between 2001 and 2014, before the eventual acquisition of its assets by the NATCOM Consortium in 2015 and its formal liquidation by the Nigerian government. In the discussion, Orji links excessive government interference in NITEL’s privatisation process to the eventual depreciation of NITEL’s original commercial value from over 1 billion USD to 252 million USD when it was acquired by the NATCOM.

In Chapter 3, Orji examines legal and policy frameworks that govern the Nigerian telecommunications industry. He discusses the legal basis for the industry’s regulation under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) and then carefully analyses several frameworks including the Wireless Telegraphy Act (1998), the National Policy on Telecommunications (2000), the National Policy for Information Technology (2001), the National Space Policy (2001), the Nigerian Communications Act (2003), the National Information Technology Development Agency Act (2007), the draft National Information and Communication Technology Policy (2012), the Commercial Frequency Management Policy (2013), and the National Broadband Plan 2013-2018, (2013). He also discusses the key policy and regulatory institutions including the industry regulator – NCC, the Federal Ministry of Communication, and the National Frequency Management Council. Orji analyses the NCC’s regulatory mandate and powers, and the mechanisms for holding the NCC accountable such as executive supervision, legislative oversight, and judicial review. He argues that judicial review provides the best means of holding the NCC accountable, due to the limitations of executive supervision and legislative oversight mechanisms. Orji also points to the need to reform the absolute powers of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to remove a Commissioner of the NCC to include provisions for checks and balances by the legislature or judiciary, so as to guarantee the political independence of the NCC’s governing board to act in the best interests of the public and the industry.  In reviewing the powers of the Minister of Communications Technology in the telecommunications industry, Orji uses the 2010 case of Mobitel Ltd v. The Minister of Information and Communication[2] to highlight limits of the Minister’s powers over the direction of the NCC, pointing to how these limitations promote the NCC’s regulatory independence in line with international best practice as mandated by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Telecommunications Reference Paper (WTO, 1996).[3]

In Chapter 4, Orji examines the licensing regime, as provided for under the Nigerian Communications Act (2003), which establishes the following types of licences: x  the individual license, the class license and spectrum assignment licenses, such as the short term permits, the medium-term permits and the long term renewable permits. The objectives of licensing, the duties of licensees and the legal effect of revoking or suspending a license are analyzed. He also discusses the application of the ‘use or lose’ principle in the management of Nigeria’s spectrum resources.

Chapter 5 examines the regulation of telecommunications network infrastructure deployment, including the discussion of the NCC Guidelines on Technical Specifications for the Installation of Telecommunications Masts and Towers (2009), the National Environmental (Standards for Telecommunications and Broadcast Facilities) Regulations (2011), and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act (1992). Orji points to a general duty of care as the core legal principle that governs the installation of telecommunications facilities in an environment. He links this principle with the obligations of operators to comply with environmental standards. Orji also discusses the challenges affecting deployment of telecommunications network infrastructure in the country, including the problem of multiple and conflicting layers of regulation by government authorities such as the existence of conflicting environmental standards set by NCC and the National Environmental Standards Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), multiple regulation of telecommunications infrastructure by urban planning authorities at the state and local government levels, lack of uniformity in the administration of ‘right of way’ permits by authorities at different tiers of government, and the existence of multiple layers of taxation. One of the illustrations he provides of the challenges of multiple taxation is the 2007 case of Registered Trustees of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) v. Lagos State Government,[4] in which the plaintiffs successfully challenged the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Lagos State Infrastructure Maintenance Regulatory Agency Act of 2004 on the basis that section 16 of the Law which sought to regulate the installation of telecommunication masts duplicated the regulatory powers of the NCC, and also amounted to an imposition of additional layers of taxation on their operations. Orji proposes several solutions on how the challenges to telecommunications infrastructure installation can be addressed, including:  the need for the national harmonization of relevant regulations on the installation of telecommunications infrastructure and the harmonization of  applicable industry taxes in a single regime so as to promote uniformity and also  increase certainty and transparency  in the enforcement of taxes.

Chapter 6 covers the consumer protection regime in the industry. In respect of remedies for poor quality of service, Orji inquires whether consumers must first seek remedies through the NCC’s dispute resolution mechanism before suing for remedies under contract law. He submits that a consumer does not need to first seek remedies through the NCC’s dispute resolution mechanism under sections 73-75 of the Nigerian Communications Act (2003), as a condition precedent before suing for a remedy under the law of contract, or the NCC’s Quality of Service Regulations (2012) or under the Consumer Protection Council Act (1992), “provided that the consumer or the service provider has not earlier sought the intervention of the NCC to resolve the dispute in accordance with section 75(1) of the Nigerian Communications Act (2003)”. He illustrates this position by referencing the decision of the Court of Appeal in the 2017 case of MTN Nigeria Communications Limited v. Godfrey Eneye,[5] where it was held that

“it is clear from the provisions of section 75 of the Nigerian Communications Act (2003) that parties to a dispute arising from the provision and use of communications services and networks are not mandatorily bound to refer their dispute to the NCC, or that the NCC must entertain every such dispute. The parties have a choice of referring their disputes to the NCC or pursuing their resolution by other means. It is only when either or both parties notify and request it to intervene, that it can resolve a dispute…It is only when a party to the dispute has elected to notify the NCC of the dispute, and requested the NCC to resolve it that the dispute resolution process by the NCC prescribed in sections 86, 87 and 88 of the Act shall become operational”.

Orji also highlights the need for improved regulatory measures to protect consumers against unsolicited communications, drawing on examples from jurisdictions such as the United States and the European Union. The chapter highlights the inadequacy of the data protection principles under the NCC’s Consumer Code of Practice Regulations (2007) given that the principles do not specify the rights of consumers during the processing of their personal data, such as the rights to object to processing of their data and the rights to request the rectification or erasure of inaccurate data.

Chapter 7 examines competition regulation in the industry, including measures to address anti-competitive practices, dominance, and the control of mergers and acquisitions.  One of the key takeaways from the analysis in the chapter is the apparent overlap between the merger regulation powers of the NCC and those of the Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Orji makes suggestions on how this regulatory overlap can be addressed in practice, including: the need to streamline the merger regulation mandates of the SEC and NCC through institutional arrangements such as a Memorandum of Understanding, so as to reduce the potential for a future regulatory conflict.

In Chapter 8, Orji looks at the regulation of telecommunications interconnection and network access, including the provisions of the Nigerian Communications Act in respect of the special obligations of dominant operators. A key element in this chapter is its discussion on the regulation of co-location and infrastructure-sharing, both of which can reduce the costs of network deployment and limit unnecessary duplication of network infrastructure.

Chapter 9 examines universal access and service, and situates these concepts within the context of the human rights to freedom of information and freedom of expression under Article 19 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and right to ICT access under Article 9 of the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The chapter also discusses the recognition of a human right to broadband/internet access in several countries such as Costa Rica, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, and Spain. Orji examines the challenges impeding universal access to broadband in Nigeria in including the unharmonized administration of costly right of way permits, long delays in obtaining right of way permits, the high costs of network infrastructure deployment due to intensive civil engineering operations, poor infrastructure sharing, and the vandalization of fiber optic infrastructure. He proposes several solutions, including: the adoption of a ‘dig once’ approach in fiber optic cable deployment and the subsidization network infrastructure deployment in rural and remote geographical areas. The chapter also discusses the legal regime for promoting the telecommunications access of persons with disabilities, while also highlighting the limitations of the regime in terms of the absence of supportive access platforms to customer care centers and the absence of measures to promote access for persons with disabilities. Drawing examples from Australia and the United States, Orji proposes measures such as the application of a universal design approach in designing telecommunications/ICT products and services so as to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy reasonable access to telecommunications/ICTs.

In Chapter 10, Orji focuses on the environmental protection and public health regime that applies in the industry and analyses issues such as the siting and abandonment of masts and towers and the prevention of environmental pollution from telecommunication facilities. He discusses matters such as interference with property rights, aesthetic harm, and exposure to radiation from electro-magnetic fields (EMF) as some of the environmental and public health concerns in the industry. With respect to EMF exposure, the Orji undertakes an in-depth discussion on the subject and the need for the application of the 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration’s precautionary principle of environmental governance, which requires that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”.[6] Given the World Health Organization’s acknowledgement that “with more and more research data available, it has become increasingly unlikely that exposure to electromagnetic fields constitutes a serious health hazard, nevertheless, some uncertainty remains”,[7] Orji, argues for the application of the precautionary approach on the basis of this acknowledgement of the existence of some uncertainty so as to mitigate the perceived public health hazards of EMF radiation from telecommunication facilities.

Using the 2015 case of NESREA v. Helios Towers and the Kaduna Environmental Protection Agency (KEPA),[8] which arose from a state environmental protection authority’s claim of powers to issue Environmental Impact Assessment Certificates for the installation of telecommunications facilities, Orji illustrates the challenges of multiple and conflicting environmental regulations and charges being applied to telecommunication facilities by state environmental protection authorities. He notes that this has been a source of friction between the national environmental regulatory authority, NESREA and state environmental protection authorities, while also increasing regulatory uncertainty and the compliance burden of operators. To address this challenge, Orji recommends measures such as the harmonization of federal and state environmental regulations and standards, and the amendment of the Constitution to grant the federal government exclusive powers to undertake the environmental regulation of telecommunications.

In Chapter 11, Orji discusses the resolution of telecommunication disputes, and highlights the impediments to using judicial review to challenge the regulatory decisions of the NCC, due to the absence of a specified time frame within which the NCC would provide a statement of the reasons for its decision to an aggrieved party. He proposes reforms to the dispute resolution regime under the Nigerian Communications Act, by recommending the specification of a time frame within which the NCC would provide a statement of the reasons for its decision on dispute to an aggrieved party, so as to prevent the delays that could technically impede such party from timely undertaking a judicial review of the NCC’s decision on a dispute.

This book is a truly comprehensive compendium of Nigeria’s telecommunications laws and policies, and it is current, touching on several very recent legal developments and judicial decisions. Moreover, this book is well written, in straightforward language that makes it easy for the reader to follow the author’s thoughts. The book also has a comprehensive table of contents, a rich index, and listings of all the legal cases, statutes, regulations and international instruments covered, all of which add to its value as a reference resource. No other text has undertaken such a robust analysis of Nigeria’s telecommunications laws, therefore, the author’s effort is highly commendable. This book makes a significant contribution in bridging the knowledge gap that exists on telecommunications law and regulation in Nigeria, and it is recommended to students, academics, legal practitioners, regulators, and policy makers who are researching or working in the field of telecommunications law and regulation in Nigeria or in other developing countries. It is hoped that the author will continue to update this highly useful text in future editions.

Reviewer: Dr. Peter Chukwuma Obutte

Senior Lecturer and Head of Department, Department of Jurisprudence and International Law, Faculty of Law, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

[1] Orji, U. J. (2017). A Critical Review of the Legal Regime for Telecommunications in Nigeria. PhD thesis, Faculty of Law, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.

[2] Mobitel Ltd v. The Minister of Information and Communication & Others [2010] (Unreported) Suit No.

FHC/ABJ/M312/09.

[3] World Trade Organisation (WTO). (1996). Telecommunications services: Reference paper. Retrieved from https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/serv_e/telecom_e/tel23_e.html.

[4] Registered Trustees of Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) & Others v. Lagos State Government & Others [2007] (Unreported) Suit No. FHC/L/CS/517/06.

[5] MTN Nigeria Communications Limited v. Godfrey Eneye [2017] (Unreported) Appeal No. CA/A/689/2013, Judgment delivered at the Court of Appeal, Abuja Division (12 May, 2017) at pp.31-32.

[6] Principle 3, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, UN Doc.A/CONF.151/5/REV.1, 31, I.L.M. 874 (1992).

[7] World Health Organization, ‘What are Electromagnetic Fields? – Precautionary Approaches’, (emphasis added). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/peh-emf/about/whatisEMF/en/index5.html.

[8] NESREA v. Helios Towers and the Kaduna Environmental Protection Agency (KEPA) [2015] (Unreported) Suit CA/K/123/2010.

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The Best New Civil Law Book of 2019: Online Arbitration in Theory and in Practice

We are absolutely delighted to announce the feature of one of our newly published titles in the field of law: Online Arbitration in Theory and in Practice: A Comparative Study of Cross-Border Commercial Transactions in Common Law and Civil Law Countries, on BookAuthority. This site collates the mostly highly advocated books on business, technology and science (and law) as featured on CNN, Inc and Forbes. This book, authored by distinguished scholar of Private Law, practicing lawyer and chartered arbitrator: Dr Ihab Amro, comes in as the best new book concerning civil law.

To view the book on BookAuthority, please click this link. To find out more about this book, please click this link wherein Ihab discloses an in-depth overview of his opus.


This book presents an overview of online arbitration and electronic contracting worldwide, examining their national and international contexts, and assessing their ongoing relevance. It offers solutions to the salient challenges facing both online arbitration and electronic contracting, dealing first–hand with online arbitration as an online dispute resolution technique for solving both traditional and electronic commerce disputes that may arise out of the breach of contractual obligations in international commercial contracts, while also comparing between common law and civil law countries.

In the theory of law, this book analyses the international legal framework that regulates e–commerce, and its impact on electronic contracting, including Model Laws and International Conventions such as the Model Law on Electronic Commerce of 1996 and the Electronic Communications Convention of 2005. It also investigates whether the UN Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods of 1980 ‘The CISG’ applies to e–commerce contracts. In addition, it extensively examines the possibility for the enforcement of online arbitration agreements and online arbitral awards under the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards of 1958.

Regarding the practice of law, the volume examines how national courts apply both national laws and the New York Convention of 1958 when dealing with the enforcement of online arbitration agreements, and whether courts apply the provisions of national laws of arbitration liberally. As such, it encourages the adoption of a more liberal judicial regime in favour of the enforcement of online arbitral awards and online arbitration agreements in national courts.

This book represents a valuable resource for academics, arbitrators, practicing lawyers, corporate counsels, law students, researchers, and professionals who are willing to solve their cross–border commercial disputes through online arbitration.


To purchase this book please visit the book’s page on our website via this link where a 30 page sample extract can be accessed. Keep an eye out for forthcoming editions of Revue de l’arbitrage, Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review, the Arbitration Journal of the Russian Arbitration Association and the International Journal of Law and Information Technology for reviews of this this book.

Online Arbitration in Theory and in Practice – Top 38 Arbitration Books of All Time

We are absolutely delighted to announce the feature of one of our newly published titles in the field of law: Online Arbitration in Theory and in Practice: A Comparative Study of Cross-Border Commercial Transactions in Common Law and Civil Law Countries, on BookAuthority. This site collates the mostly highly advocated books on business, technology and science (and law) as featured on CNN, Inc and Forbes. This book, authored by distinguished scholar of Private Law, practicing lawyer and chartered arbitrator: Dr Ihab Amro, comes in as the 36th best arbitration book of all time.

To view the book on BookAuthority, please click this link. To find out more about this book, please click this link wherein Ihab discloses an in-depth overview of his opus.


This book presents an overview of online arbitration and electronic contracting worldwide, examining their national and international contexts, and assessing their ongoing relevance. It offers solutions to the salient challenges facing both online arbitration and electronic contracting, dealing first–hand with online arbitration as an online dispute resolution technique for solving both traditional and electronic commerce disputes that may arise out of the breach of contractual obligations in international commercial contracts, while also comparing between common law and civil law countries.

In the theory of law, this book analyses the international legal framework that regulates e–commerce, and its impact on electronic contracting, including Model Laws and International Conventions such as the Model Law on Electronic Commerce of 1996 and the Electronic Communications Convention of 2005. It also investigates whether the UN Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods of 1980 ‘The CISG’ applies to e–commerce contracts. In addition, it extensively examines the possibility for the enforcement of online arbitration agreements and online arbitral awards under the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards of 1958.

Regarding the practice of law, the volume examines how national courts apply both national laws and the New York Convention of 1958 when dealing with the enforcement of online arbitration agreements, and whether courts apply the provisions of national laws of arbitration liberally. As such, it encourages the adoption of a more liberal judicial regime in favour of the enforcement of online arbitral awards and online arbitration agreements in national courts.

This book represents a valuable resource for academics, arbitrators, practicing lawyers, corporate counsels, law students, researchers, and professionals who are willing to solve their cross–border commercial disputes through online arbitration.


To purchase this book please visit the book’s page on our website via this link where a 30 page sample extract can be accessed.

No3 on the 11 Best New Arbitration Books To Read In 2019: Online Arbitration in Theory and in Practice

We are absolutely delighted to announce the feature of one of our newly published titles in the field of law: Online Arbitration in Theory and in Practice: A Comparative Study of Cross-Border Commercial Transactions in Common Law and Civil Law Countries, on BookAuthority. This site collates the mostly highly advocated books on business, technology and science (and law) as featured on CNN, Inc and Forbes. This book, authored by distinguished scholar of Private Law, practicing lawyer and chartered arbitrator: Dr Ihab Amro, comes in as the 3rd best book on arbitration in 2019.

To view the book on BookAuthority, please click this link. To find out more about this book, please click this link wherein Ihab discloses an in-depth overview of his opus.


This book presents an overview of online arbitration and electronic contracting worldwide, examining their national and international contexts, and assessing their ongoing relevance. It offers solutions to the salient challenges facing both online arbitration and electronic contracting, dealing first–hand with online arbitration as an online dispute resolution technique for solving both traditional and electronic commerce disputes that may arise out of the breach of contractual obligations in international commercial contracts, while also comparing between common law and civil law countries.

In the theory of law, this book analyses the international legal framework that regulates e–commerce, and its impact on electronic contracting, including Model Laws and International Conventions such as the Model Law on Electronic Commerce of 1996 and the Electronic Communications Convention of 2005. It also investigates whether the UN Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods of 1980 ‘The CISG’ applies to e–commerce contracts. In addition, it extensively examines the possibility for the enforcement of online arbitration agreements and online arbitral awards under the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards of 1958.

Regarding the practice of law, the volume examines how national courts apply both national laws and the New York Convention of 1958 when dealing with the enforcement of online arbitration agreements, and whether courts apply the provisions of national laws of arbitration liberally. As such, it encourages the adoption of a more liberal judicial regime in favour of the enforcement of online arbitral awards and online arbitration agreements in national courts.

This book represents a valuable resource for academics, arbitrators, practicing lawyers, corporate counsels, law students, researchers, and professionals who are willing to solve their cross–border commercial disputes through online arbitration.


To purchase this book please visit the book’s page on our website via this link where a 30 page sample extract can be accessed. Keep an eye out for forthcoming editions of Revue de l’arbitrage, Digital Evidence and Electronic Signature Law Review, the Arbitration Journal of the Russian Arbitration Association and the International Journal of Law and Information Technology for reviews of this this book.

Two new books by Uchenna Jerome Orji

Cambridge Scholars Publishing is pleased to announce the publication of two new books by Dr Uchenna Jerome Orji, International Telecommunications Law and Policy and Telecommunications Law and Regulation in Nigeria.

International Telecommunications Law and Policy discusses telecommunication regimes established by international and regional organizations such as the United Nations, the International Telecommunication Union, the World Trade Organization, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and the Southern African Development Community, among a number of others. Since the revolution in modern telecommunications that followed the invention of the telegraph, telecommunication networks have provided channels for the fast delivery of communications across national borders. This transnational nature of telecommunication networks have led to the establishment of international regulatory regimes on the subject. The book analyses these developments, and will be relevant to policy makers, regulators, lawyers, law students, investors and telecommunication operators, as well as any person interested in international and African regional telecommunication regimes.

Telecommunications Law and Regulation in Nigeria provides an analysis of the legal and policy instruments that regulate the industry. It comprises eleven chapters that discuss the historical evolution of telecommunications and its regulation; the development of the Nigerian telecommunications industry from 1886 to 2017; the legal basis for the regulation of the industry; the licensing and duties of service providers; the regulation of network infrastructure; the protection of consumers; the regulation of competition, interconnection, universal access, and environmental protection; and the resolution of industry disputes. This book will be useful to policy makers, legislators, regulators, lawyers, law students, investors, operators, and consumers, as well as any person interested in the Nigerian telecommunications industry.

To read a full summary of the books and to read a 30-page sample extract, which includes the table of contents, please visit the following links:

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/international-telecommunications-law-and-policy

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/telecommunications-law-and-regulation-in-nigeria

All Cambridge Scholars authors and contributors are entitled to a 40% discount on these titles, to claim this simply enter the author discount code on the My Order page after adding the book to your basket from the link above. For further information about the author discount, please contact admin@cambridgescholars.com. In addition, Telecommunications Law and Regulation in Nigeria is available until the end of September for a cut-price £39.99.

For further information on placing an order for these titles, please contact orders@cambridgescholars.com.

About the Author

Dr Uchenna Jerome Orji is an attorney admitted to the Nigerian Bar. He holds an LLB from the University of Nigeria, an LLM from the University of Ibadan, and a PhD from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Nigeria. He is the author of Cybersecurity Law and Regulation (2012), and International Telecommunications Law and Policy (2018), in addition to over 70 peer-reviewed papers on several aspects of law. His articles have appeared in Journal of African Law; Commonwealth Law Bulletin; Computer and Telecommunications Law Review; Computer Law Review International; Defence Against Terrorism Review; International Data Privacy Law; and OPEC Energy Review, among others. He is a Fellow of the African Center for Cyber Law and Cybercrime Prevention at the UN African Institute for the Prevention of Crime, Kampala, Uganda, and has also worked as an expert for the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth and the Dutch Government.

Book Review: Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners: Invisible Children

Over the last two decades mass incarceration and the prison boom have seen more individuals imprisoned than ever before. The growing numbers of children with a parent in prison constitutes perhaps one of the largest at-risk populations globally. With an increased number of parents being imprisoned, the impact this has on children is profound. Children may experience a range of challenges, including: emotional, psychological, social and educational. Moreover, the effect of parental imprisonment may have undesirable consequences on children’s overall well-being and future prospects. In addition to this, children may face changes in family life, which also raises concerns around family finances, stigma and possible adjustments to family living arrangements. The tension of incarceration may further increase the chance of breakdowns in intimate partner relationships, making it difficult for children to get a sense of how positive relationships function.

In March 2017, researchers, advocates and NGOs from twelve countries came together in Rotorua, New Zealand, for the first conference of the International Coalition for the Children of Incarcerated Parents. The coalition had been formed the previous year to recognise that children of prisoners’ around the world faced similar challenges. From the moment of arrest until release from prison, the system is stacked against children. Justice tends to be more focused on punishing individuals, and, as one conference speaker noted, ‘child blind’. Adele Jones (2017) argues that at every point in the justice system, children are often overlooked. As a result, this becomes a type of collateral damage, and the system therefore fails to take accountability for any harm caused.

The book Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners edited by Liz Gordon, is a comprehensive collection of articles, which covers a wide range of research and literature on the children of prisoners. The book is divided into themes, which include: an introduction to parental incarceration and the various impacts this has on children, moving towards child-friendly prison systems, using mass incarceration to influence wider social change, the effects of pre-trial detention on families, maintaining family ties, resilience in children of incarcerated parents, detention procedures, child and family visitations to prison, and policy and practice across imprisonment. These are just some of the extensive topics which this book covers. Each chapter takes the reader on a journey and provides in-depth information, and is strongly supported by evidence.

Furthermore, the collection of papers within this book reflect contemporary research and analysis on the children of prisoners. Ann Adalist-Estrin (2017) set out ‘twelve guiding principles’ for working with children and families of the incarcerated, these principles where developed from training, focus groups and listening sessions with those who work with children, parents’ in prison, caregivers and children themselves. Ann writes that, “…the principles are meant to be thought provoking…to question ourselves and each other about the “who and why” of providing supports and services along with the “what and when”” (p.101).

Another chapter by Michael Trout (2017) looks at how babies and young children react to parental imprisonment, in his chapter, the author notes the impact on babies and young children when someone of importance is suddenly taken away from them. The chapter strongly focuses on the internal experience of very young children when their parent goes to prison. He states, “Our task is to open our minds to a full and quiet imagination of young child’s experience” (p.116). Additionally, Bahiyyah Muhammad (2017) writes a refreshing chapter on the resilience of children of incarcerated parents, which showcases her own research. Against all odds: Resilient children of incarcerated parents is a chapter which provides a somewhat different insight to children of prisoners’ research. The author acknowledges that while research on prisoners’ children is imperative, it is also important to start moving towards research which provides successful stories. To mitigate some of the impacts of parental imprisonment and to inspire children to move forward and beyond the stigma, which is too often placed on children who have a parent in prison. She notes, “…most research on prisoners’ children focuses on their problems and has not attempted to create a rounded picture of their lives” (p.143). Furthermore, “…focusing on the negative outcomes of parental incarceration on children of incarcerated parents does not allow them to become confident young adults” (p.152). This chapter stands out, as it provides a different perspective to research on children of prisoners. These labels which are placed on children of incarcerated parents are not impartial, “…they too have feelings and become bruised by adults’ loss of confidence in them and their capabilities, essentially because of their parents’ actions (p. 153).

In addition, the book continues to explore some of the highly complex topics that are to be found across children of prisoners’ research. Two papers consider women: one on mothers involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospital (p. 133) and the other examining the difficulties in maintaining family ties when a mother is sent to prison (p.155). Another great contribution to this book is that it looks at an initiative between university and community set up to ‘expand knowledge and inspire change’ for the children of prisoners (p.172). One paper examines the difficult topic of supporting families where a parent has been convicted of a sexual offence (p.190). Also discussed are the types of programmes that work to break the cycles of self-destruction for the children of prisoners (p. 226) and case studies of prison staff ‘making a difference’ in child and family visiting prisons (p. 266). With such coverage of difficult and sometimes complex topics, this allows the reader to delve into some of realties that children who have a parent in prison may encounter.

To conclude, the huge impacts of parental imprisonment on children and families are irrefutable. This clever and thought-provoking resource covers all of the main themes around children of prisoners’ research and includes some practice-based perspectives. This is beneficial as the book further provides value in bringing together top researchers, practitioners and experts in this field. The book provides a 360-degree view of issues which children of prisoners may face daily, making it a vital resource for all wanting an overview of how parental imprisonment may impact children globally. Lastly, the book has a great amount of theory, provides a contemporary approach to working with prisoners’ children, policy recommendations and tips for reducing recidivism.  Therefore, it is a suitable resource for academics, students or even to be used as a course book in criminology, social work or community/policy sociology.

Reviewed by Ivana Mlinac, University of Auckland


Contemporary Research and Analysis on the Children of Prisoners: Invisible Children is available now, and can be purchased directly from Cambridge Scholars by clicking here.