Case study: Safe Ground’s Family Man courses at Belmarsh Prison

21 July 2011

Reproduced with kind permission of the Times Educational Supplement. First published 15 July 2011

The sins of the fathers

A child with a parent in prison often chooses not to speak about it at school, fearing stigma and humiliation. Nick Morrison looks at another approach

A little over 12 months ago, Charlie’s school attendance started on what became a dramatic slide. Admittedly, he was never the most punctilious 10-year-old, but at the beginning of last year his absence record grew noticeably worse.

From having an attendance rate in the mid-90s, he now hovers at just over 80 per cent. Such a drastic change has not gone unnoticed by his teachers. Letters have gone home and his mother has been summoned to school for a meeting. All, however, to no avail. He has continued to miss an average of almost a day a week of school. Mostly, that day is a Wednesday.

Today is a Wednesday and Wednesday is the day Charlie sees his father. But today is a special day. Instead of sticking to normal visiting hours, Charlie is watching his father perform on stage, alongside other inmates of Belmarsh prison.

Belmarsh, in south-east London, is one of a handful of maximum-security prisons in the country. As well as prisoners remanded or convicted by local courts, it also houses Category A prisoners, those whose escape would pose the biggest risk to the public. Among these are many of those convicted of terrorist offences.

Charlie is one of around 160,000 children in the UK with a parent in prison. In any one year, more children have a close relative in prison than have parents who are getting divorced. But while schools often provide help and support for pupils who are going through the break-up of their home, few take into account the effect that having a parent in prison can have on a child.

The stigma and fear of being bullied or ostracised means many children do not tell friends or teachers that their parent is in prison. Even when they do, schools are often unsure how to respond and, as a result, make no allowances. Charlie’s teachers know his father is in prison but have still not cut him any slack over his attendance.

But, today, all that seems forgotten, as Charlie beams with joy at the chance to spend time with his dad. His father is one of 15 prisoners taking part in a series of sketches, songs and poems, for the benefit of their wives and children.

The TES Magazine has been granted rare access to Belmarsh to watch a performance that is the culmination of a nine-week course, Family Man, designed to maintain and strengthen relationships between prisoners and their families. The course involves encouraging inmates to think about the effect their incarceration has on their loved ones and how they can continue to play a role in their children’s lives, even from behind bars.

“These are very vulnerable children,” says Jo Mandell, training and development co-ordinator for the charity Kids VIP, which works to improve contact between children and their imprisoned relatives. “It is very important to encourage bonding between children and their parents in prison.”

Kids VIP, which this year merged with Pact, the Prison Advice and Care Trust, is aiming to raise awareness among teachers of the impact of prison on children.

Children of prisoners are at risk from a host of factors. Studies have shown that they are more likely than their peers to suffer from mental illness, they have a higher rate of truancy and are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour. For many, having a parent in prison is the start of their own spiral into offending. Almost two-thirds of boys who have a convicted parent themselves go on to offend.

A government review of the children of offenders, carried out in 2007, found that they were “an ‘invisible’ group: there is no shared, robust information on who they are, little awareness of their needs and no systematic support”.

This includes schools. Even when teachers are aware that a pupil has a parent in prison, which is far from always being the case, the help they provide is patchy.

“There are pockets of support, but there is no consistency at all,” says Ms Mandell. One of the major obstacles is the stigma of jail. Some schools find it hard to believe one of their pupils has a parent in prison, she says, while others make little effort to find out.

“I have spoken to schools who say they haven’t got a child with a parent in prison, but how do they know?” she says. Many children are reluctant to tell anyone that they have a parent in jail. “They’re often worried that if people find out they won’t get invited to parties or they will end up being bullied,” Ms Mandell adds.

None of Lucy’s five children – one girl and four boys – has chosen to tell their schoolfriends that their father is in jail. But all of them have been deeply affected by his imprisonment, and all in different ways.

Their teachers do know – a necessity brought about by taking the children to Belmarsh for weekday visits, although Lucy has now switched to taking them only at weekends.

Her youngest, a boy of eight, has withdrawn into himself. While he still does his schoolwork, he has become noticeably less outgoing. “It broke his heart,” Lucy says. “He would cry every night for his dad. He hasn’t told anyone at school because he is afraid people will pick on him and say his dad is a bad man. There are a lot of people out there who can be really nasty.”

She says her second youngest, a boy of 10, has taken it the worst. He finds it difficult to concentrate and “is all over the place”, says Lucy, his emotions heightened by the thought of his father missing the end-of- year plays and his transition to secondary school in September.

The eldest boy, a 15-year-old, has become depressed and refuses to go to school altogether, while the middle child, a boy of 12, has started to get into trouble at school as his frustrations boil over.

“The other day I had a phone call saying Mikey had pinned a boy up against the wall and pasted him up and down the corridor,” says Lucy. “He was in isolation for two days and had a two-hour detention. It is hard for the kids, because they don’t know how to express themselves.”

Although his school is aware of Mikey’s situation, Lucy says there has been no offer of support. “They are very judgmental and they’re more worried about making the school look good,” she says.

“The kids get the impression the school isn’t interested and that is where Mikey’s anger comes from. He is so frustrated and he finds it really hard to tell anyone what is going on.”

Even when children find it hard to open up, Ms Mandell says schools can do more to encourage pupils to seek help. A simple option could be a poster, where having a parent in prison is listed alongside issues such as family breakdown or bereavement as a reason to ask for support. “It is such a simple thing to flag up that there is somebody they can talk to,” she says.

Where schools are aware of what is happening, one measure teachers can take is to encourage imprisoned parents to remain involved in their child’s school life.

Sending a copy of the school report to the prison, for example, or arranging a phone call with a jailed parent, can help prisoners remain engaged with their child’s progress at school, Ms Mandell says. This, in turn, can encourage children to maintain an interest in school despite their domestic circumstances.

Pact, Kids VIP’s parent body, has developed a one-day course for teachers and other professionals, in conjunction with the charity Action for Prisoners’ Families. The Hidden Sentence course aims to raise awareness of some of the issues facing prisoners’ children.

Strengthening the relationship between prisoners and their children is one of the core themes of the Family Man course. The course, run by prison officers, looks at families and how they can be affected by imprisonment, as well as ways of remaining involved in their children’s lives.

“We always ask whether you can be a good dad from inside a prison,” says Clive Ludlow, one of the officers who runs the course at Belmarsh. “They start off saying no but by the end they realise that yes, you can.”

At the end of the course, the prisoners take to the stage to express some of their thoughts about their families. They always begin by performing a play based on the Oscar Wilde play The Selfish Giant, following it up with their own sketches and poems.

There is something slightly surreal about sitting in a visiting room, having negotiated a set of elaborate security measures, including fingerprint scans, airlock doors and German shepherds, and watching a group of prisoners – including one of the country’s most notorious inmates – hold up cardboard props and don mop heads for wigs, to the occasional shout of “Come on, daddy” from the audience.

In one sketch, the men role-play an unsuccessful prison visit, when those playing an inmate and his wife argue over their son, who is going off the rails. In another, inmates perform monologues looking at imprisonment from the perspectives of a father, mother and son.

One prisoner has devised an acrostic, using a pledge to support his own family to spell out “Family Man”, while two others recite a poem on the seven stages of life. It is hard not to have a tear in your eye when you watch men opening up with their feelings about their families, when a few weeks earlier they would not even stand up to talk in front of each other.

But while their dads do what they can to assure their children of support, on the outside it is a different matter, according to Charlotte Weinberg, chief executive of Safe Ground, the charity that sponsors the Family Man courses. “Often, no one knows who those children are, so they’re not getting any extra attention,” she says.

“The result is their education may suffer and they can be seen as aggressive or withdrawn or bullying, when really it’s because of a situation that they don’t feel they can tell anybody about.”

Unlike the participants in the Family Man course, fathers who go to prison sometimes cut off contact with their families, believing they are protecting their children. Others channel their own frustration at being deprived of their freedom into aggression towards their own families. In either scenario, lack of contact with their parent can have a detrimental effect on a child’s attendance and performance at school.

Safe Ground is working with Kids VIP and Pact to look at ways of encouraging teachers to be more effective in helping children with parents in prison. These could include more open discussions on crime and punishment, improving relationships with parents so they are more likely to talk, and making sure teachers know which, if any, specialist services are available.

“Teachers can help to create an environment where the stigma of having a parent in prison is challenged,” says Ms Weinberg. “They need to know who to talk to and who they can refer people to.”

Some of this work can include allaying children’s fears about what is happening to their imprisoned parent, says Kathy Joyce, senior practitioner with the Ormiston Children and Families Trust, a charity operating in the East of England. Some children, particularly young children, worry that their parent is not being fed or could be hurt, she says, while older children can have a heightened sense of the risks of depression and suicide.

Sometimes these fears come from a misconception over what prison is. “I had one little girl who told me her dad was in a tiny, tiny place and couldn’t move,” says Ms Joyce. “She had heard ‘banged up’ and imagined him chained to the wall.”

The Ormiston Trust works with schools to ensure they have mechanisms in place to support children with a parent in prison. This ranges from using specially designed resources about the effects of prison, to making sure there is a designated person for affected children to talk to. The trust has also produced a guide for teachers and other education professionals about working with the children of prisoners.

An additional worry for the children is whether anything about their parent will appear in the newspapers, providing fuel for taunts and bullying.

“The stigma is huge,” says Ms Joyce. “It is not the only situation where a dad might not be around, but the stigma makes it worse and children are often afraid to even speak to anybody at school about it.”

One 11-year-old boy interviewed by the trust said other children had been told by their parents not to talk to him. Children with fathers in prison can also find themselves excluded from parties.

It is no wonder that some children are told not to tell anybody what has happened to their absent parent, even though this leaves them feeling isolated and afraid to ask for help.

Often schools have no idea that a child’s parent has been jailed, and it is only when the pupil starts behaving badly that they realise anything is wrong, she says. Some children manage to hide it so well that the first time the teachers realise what has happened is when the father is released and turns up at school again.

Sometimes, the children themselves do not know where their father is. Kelly has decided not to tell her five-year-old son her dad is in prison, even though she takes him on visits. Instead, she tells him his dad has to work in this building “for quite a long time”.

“He gets a bit upset sometimes, wanting to know when daddy is coming home,” she says. “But when he visits that helps him quite a lot.”

She also decided not to tell her son’s teachers – “I just felt it was something private”, she says – even though this leads to awkwardness in explaining her husband’s absence. She believes that so far her son’s schoolwork has not been affected by his dad’s imprisonment.

“So far they (the teachers) haven’t asked, because there haven’t been any issues, but things can be pretty difficult,” Kelly says. “I try to make sure things are as normal as possible for him and he has never missed a day of school because of it.”

While Kelly’s children – she also has a one-year-old daughter – are too young to understand what is happening, some children also have to battle with the knowledge that their parent has done something wrong. “Your parents are your moral guardians,” says Ms Joyce. “If one of them has done something so bad that they’re locked away, that can be really difficult to get your head around.”

While prison visits are an important way of maintaining contact, they can also be traumatic for children, particularly in jails where the security is tight.

She says one of the key steps for schools is to become aware of the issues involved and how it might affect their pupils. “We all have our own views about prison, but if you look at it from the point of view of a child with a parent in prison, it can be an eye-opener,” she says.

“We’re not talking about criminals, we’re talking about innocent children. It is not about what their parents have done; it is about supporting children who have done absolutely nothing wrong.”

The Family Man performance at Belmarsh is winding down. Children go to stand with their fathers for “Pie in the Eye”, a mock gameshow in which the dads answer questions and get a shaving-foam pie in their faces if they get the answer wrong. Or even on the rare occasions they get it right. Children squeal with delight at the chance to rub foam in their fathers’ face, encouraged by the watching wives and girlfriends.

Once all the prisoners are covered in foam, it is time for the finale: a version of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, with its chorus of “Don’t worry about a thing” given added poignancy within a prison visiting room, even though one of the men is still wearing a mop on his head.

The show over, all that is left is the presentation, as the inmates collect certificates to show they have completed the course. One of the prisoners goes up with his son in his arms and returns, certificate in hand, his son grinning from ear to ear, proud of his dad.

*Some names have been changed

What schools can do

– Increase the visibility of issues facing prisoners’ families through posters, leaflets, books and other resources.

– Ensure carers feel able to ask for help by making school procedures better understood and having relevant information available.

– Provide information on local and national specialist support, or referring families to appropriate agencies.

– Look at how children of prisoners can be supported and include parents in prison whenever possible.

– Ensure accurate information on prison life is available for all children.

– Provide practical tools for teachers and raise awareness in staff development sessions.

Source: Working with Children and Families of Prisoners by the Ormiston Children and Families Trust

Where to go for help

– Kids VIP: www.kidsvip.co.uk

– Pact: www.prisonadvice.org.uk

– Safeground: www.safeground.org.uk

– Ormiston Children and Families Trust: www.ormiston.org.uk

– Action for Prisoners’ Families: www.prisonersfamilies.org.uk

Copyright TES Magazine 2011

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