Schools offer support for prisoners' children

Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, is up for closurePA

Children's charity Barnardo's has launched a scheme which aims to provide school-based help and support for children who have a parent in prison.

Having recognised the wider impact that imprisonment has on the families of offenders, prison officer Nick Howard of HMP Erlestoke has been seconded to work for the charity and set up the new project. He believes that the children of prisoners suffer "a hidden sentence", leaving schools with an extra responsibility to care for them.

"I'm used to catering for the needs of the offenders in custody. Now I've realised that many of these offenders are fathers, with families who are often struggling to deal with the fact that a parent or guardian is in custody," he told a Wiltshire newspaper.

Recent figures released by the Ministry of Justice reveal that 200,000 children were affected by the imprisonment of a parent in 2009, which is a greater number than those who have experienced their parents' divorce and accounts for around seven per cent of children across the UK.

Around 85,000 adults are currently in custody in England and Wales, and re-offending rates are high, which has led to increased concerns about the social impact of crime and imprisonment, and its potential effect on future generations.

Studies suggest that a staggering sixty per cent of boys who have a father in prison will follow in their parent's footsteps, while around 30 per cent of children with an imprisoned parent experience mental health problems, three times as many as the general population.

"Children and families often become isolated and stigmatised when a parent is in custody," explains prison governor Andy Rogers, underlining the hope that this new scheme will offer children the opportunity to confidentially talk through the issues and struggles they are facing with a mentor.

The 'Prison Champions' project will involve training volunteers who already work in schools to be a key source of support for these young people. Through spending time in a prison, learning about family visits and attending workshops, these volunteers will be equipped to better journey alongside children as they work through difficult circumstances.

The first Champion has already been appointed, teaching assistant Sarah Beveridge from Dilton Marsh Church of England Primary School in Wiltshire.

Headteacher Judith Finney says she is shocked by the number of children in the UK who are coping with having a parent in prison, and wants to "tackle prejudice" surrounding the issue head on through her school.

"The real thing is to encourage those affected to share with us rather than suffer in silence, through any sense of guilt or shame," she explains.

"There must be no barriers to our children learning to their maximum potential. There must be no barriers to our children being emotionally secure.

"We're very keen to add another dimension to our children's pastoral and emotional care which in turn will promote high standards of academic achievement."

All schools in Wiltshire are being encouraged to get involved in the scheme, which it is hoped will be rolled out in partnership with prisons across the country.