Why we need to see the children of prisoners

Unlocking the potential of these children is matter of seeing them and tackling the stigma that keeps them and their families invisible, writes Natasha Porter

Unlocking the potential of these children is matter of seeing them and tackling the stigma that keeps them and their families invisible, writes Natasha Porter

15 Jan 2022, 5:00

I had been a teacher for six years when one of the most cheerful children in my year came to school and fell apart in my office. That morning she had woken up as the police broke down her front door. Her parents had been arrested and were very likely to be serving long prison sentences. That evening she would not be returning to her family home.

I thought she was the first child I had taught who had ended up in this situation, but what I know now is that this was almost certainly not the case. Teachers are used to looking out for children who may be unhappy or suffering at home. Bereavement, illness and divorce can all affect the behaviour of the young people in our care. We are drilled to be constantly vigilant for the worst cases.  

There is one adverse childhood experience, however, that is almost never spoken about: having a parent in prison. The shame and stigma around this means schools are rarely informed. Even as a teacher of almost ten years’ standing, it was an issue that I only became aware of when I started working in the criminal justice sector.

The numbers are startling: an estimated 312,000 children have a parent in prison each year. That compares to just 100,000 children whose parents get a divorce each year. Statistically, there is more than one child with a parent in prison in every year group in every school in the country. But it is almost certainly true that big secondaries serving communities with entrenched social challenges have larger numbers of these children.

It is also a particularly urgent challenge, because 65 per cent of boys with a parent in prison end up in the criminal justice system themselves.

It is no one’s job in government to know where these children are

The problem is that schools might not know who is affected. There’s a lot of shame attached to imprisonment, and it is no one’s job in government to know where these children are. Yet knowing this is crucial to supporting them. That might be about urgent action, such as ensuring there is someone to collect them from school if their caregiver has gone to prison since dropping them off in the morning, but it is also about reducing intergenerational offending in the long term.

Maternal imprisonment is particularly damaging for child’s later outcomes. Tragically, 95 per cent of children have to leave the family home as a result of maternal imprisonment, and visiting women in prison is often harder because they tend to be in prisons that are further from home.

This is before you factor in the damage of the pandemic, which has been devastating for children of prisoners. Even when family visits were reintroduced after a long ban, prisons have often had to enforce restrictions on physical contact. I met a prisoner whose young child would spend visits sobbing and begging her mother to hold her. She made the heartbreaking decision to stop her daughter visiting until physical contact was allowed again.

The good news is that we do know some of what can make a difference. Central to this is strong family ties which help both the child and the imprisoned family member. Of course, there are exceptions to this if the crimes have safeguarding elements, but overall, children keeping a strong relationship with mum or dad in prison is crucial, and schools should be helping with this however they can.

But they can’t exercise the required flexibility if they don’t know where these children are and how they are being supported. Schools need to create non-judgmental and supportive spaces for families and children to talk about parental imprisonment, and a statutory framework that identifies prisoners’ children would allow that support to be put in place.

In the meantime, small changes can have a big impact. This includes being thoughtful about the language we use when discussing prisons and prisoners in classrooms, playgrounds and assemblies.

Because it is more likely than you may realise that who you are actually describing is one of your own pupil’s mum and dad.

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  1. One small change that I would recommend two teachers and other people dealing with such children are used to talk about the people at home not as “your parents” but as “your grown-ups”.

    The other important suggestion I’d like to make is that you not make up a story to hide the imprisonment from the child. When s/he find out, and s/he will almost certainly find out, that child won’t trust you in the future. Children can deal with the realities they face, with the help of loving adults…and they deserve the truth.