Inside story

When a dad goes to prison, his children are punished too. But a book-based scheme in which inmates and their offspring share a different kind of sentence is easing the pain of separation. David Newnham reports

Half a dozen children jumped Sebastian in the playground last week. They beat him up and knocked him unconscious so that the 13-year-old had to be rushed into hospital.

"It was six on to one," he protests, as if one or two either way would have made any difference. But what really hurts is the name his attackers called him. "They were shouting, 'Jailbird, jailbird'," he says. "They've been calling me that ever since dad was sent to prison."

Kevin gives his son another squeeze on the shoulder as he says this. Caught in the middle of a family rift, Sebastian has not been allowed to visit his father for the past 10 months, and both know that, in a quarter of an hour, the guards will clear the room.

"There are no words to express how it feels behind these walls," says Kevin. "One day seems like a week, and a week seems like a month, and you have to block off what's happening outside or you'd go mad."

When the time comes to leave, Sebastian carries a bag with him to the door. In it are some children's books, chosen by Kevin with the help of librarians taking part in a pioneering scheme at Nottingham prison. It's known as the Big Book Share. A dozen inmates attend a fortnightly session in the prison, learn about children's books and, if they want to, make a tape of themselves reading a bedtime story to their children. At the end of the story, they can also include a personal message.

Once a month, the children come to this carpeted room, which is set apart from the main visitors' centre. Here, in a complete break with prison protocol, they are allowed close contact with their fathers, albeit under the watchful eyes of two uniformed prison officers and half a dozen CCTV cameras concealed behind dark glass shades.

At the centre of these family encounters are the books the fathers have chosen. Librarians from the city and the prison library are on hand to help with reading. This week, the Big Book Share won the Libraries Change Lives award, which highlights the ways in which libraries tackle social exclusion and will pay pound;4,000 towards the development of the project. In some ways, the books are a device to strengthen the often overstretched bonds between prisoner and family. For men such as Kevin, counting the months and years before their release, this monthly contact can be an emotional life-saver. Indeed, the role of family ties in reducing re-offending rates and preserving calm in prisons has not been lost on the Home Office.

Following the 1991 Woolf report, which recognised the lack of opportunities for family contact during imprisonment, the Prison Service says it has encouraged prisoners to maintain "meaningful family ties". About one prison in two now has a visitors' centre. These are sometimes little more than waiting areas, but the better ones are equipped with play facilities. At the same time, family days, which allow prisoners extended contact with their families and even to sit down to a meal with their children, are becoming a regular feature of life in some institutions.

The emphasis here is on the eventual rehabilitation of offenders, but children such as Sebastian are perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of these initiatives. In a very real sense, they are the victims of crime who often suffer the toughest punishment when the courts decide on a custodial sentence.

In 1998, Save the Children, in collaboration with other voluntary organisations, produced a handbook for teachers called Working With Children of Prisoners. It concluded that such children were largely invisible in schools because there were no formal links between prison-related agencies and those dealing with the education system.

Four years later, groups supporting prisoners' families say this situation has hardly changed, with schools still relying on guesswork, gossip and stories in the local media for information, and falling back on their instincts when it comes to dealing with children who are often traumatised.

"It was a classic case of kids falling between two stools," says Sally Ramsden, author of the handbook. "We realised it was a big problem in terms of the numbers of children involved and the impact it had on them."

Remarkably, no one knows how many children of school age in England and Wales have parents in prison. Meanwhile, the prison population in England and Wales is at a record high - the daily head count is around 70,000 - with the number of women rising fast. The most easily obtainable figures for children with parents in prison turn out to have been extrapolated from a Home Office survey of women prisoners conducted in 1997, and so take no account of the number of fathers in prison. More realistic estimates suggest that as many as 140,000 children might be affected in the course of a year.

According to the Federation of Prisoners' Families Support Groups (FPFSG), male prisoners are now asked as a matter of course if they have dependent children. But, frustratingly, nothing is done with the information, and the Prison Service has so far resisted all pressure to collate it.

Given the lack of statistics, the absence of formal links between agencies and the reluctance of some families to divulge information about their circumstances for fear of what might be done with it (parents may be afraid their children will be taken into care, for instance), schools and teachers are often left to work out for themselves that a pupil's life is being disrupted by imprisonment.

Ms Ramsden says typical signs might include sudden changes in behaviour, or absences due to court appearances, prison visits, or the need for a child to stay at home and look after younger siblings. "There will be truanting because there is a stigma attached to having a parent in prison," she says. "And the child may be miserable because of teasing and bullying. Having a parent in prison is often combined with problems of poverty, single-parenting or even race, and this will affect some kids' ability to finish school."

Sometimes, the child is not told that a parent has been sent to prison. "Then it's like mourning without a body," says Ms Ramsden. "There is no closure for the child until the parent is released, and when the parent does walk back into their lives, it's often a time of additional stress and tension because they are going to have their own difficulties."

A child may also have been traumatised after witnessing a violent arrest, and have worries about court appearances and prison visits, the latter always involving a physical search by a prison officer. Ms Ramsden believes the effects of such extreme anxiety and disruption on children's education, relationships and behaviour can be compared to the effects of living in a war zone, with symptoms such as bedwetting and an inability to concentrate often forming a recognisable pattern.

"It's an extremely challenging situation for a teacher to deal with, given the difficulty of balancing sensitivity to a child's problems against the fact that they are perhaps being repeatedly disruptive," she says. "There may well be no solution."

The FPFSG has called on the Department for Education and Skills to include reference to prisoners' children in teacher training, and it believes local authorities should develop policies and guidance to support schools and colleges, and incorporate these issues into behaviour support plans.

"There is more interest and more awareness," says Lucy Gampell, director of the federation. "We take an increasing number of calls from schools asking for information for children and teachers. But we are just scratching the surface. There has been no directive from the DfES saying that schools need to be aware of the problems."

She believes schools have the potential to provide a haven of security and routine when imprisonment hits. "Prison is not always a bad thing for kids," she says. "For some, it can be a respite from terrible situations."

But even if schools could step into the breach at such times, much has to be done to raise awareness and improve communications. A recent federation project involved identifying children's own concerns - "Nobody thinks of asking them what they want," says Ms Gampell - and it has just published Who's Guilty?, a leaflet for children based on interviews with 12 to 18-year-olds.

But Ms Gampell is keen to stress that children can be equally affected by the imprisonment of a sibling, or even a grandparent. In the immediate aftermath of the arrest of a relative, a child's greatest need is for information - because only if children know what is going on can they decide whether they want others to be told.

Children, particularly adolescents, consistently say their most pressing concern at school is confidentiality. "They want somebody to talk to, but they want it to be confidential," says Ms Gampell. "They are afraid of being labelled. Some of the worst stories we hear involve parents who have found out that somebody in their child's class has a family member in prison."

Even more worryingly, many children, perhaps feeling guilty about what has happened within their families, are reluctant to tell a teacher, even in confidence, fearing they might be judged themselves.

"It's about creating an environment in which people feel they have the option to disclose their circumstances," says Ms Gampell. "Often, they don't trust the confidentiality, and they don't trust what will be done with the information."

The Libraries Change Lives award, sponsored by the Library and Information Show, is in its 10th year. Alongside this year's winner - the Big Book Share at Nottingham prison library - were two runners-up: the Patients'

Library at The State Hospital, Carstairs, South Lanarkshire, providing recreation and lifelong learning in a secure hospital for the mentally ill; and the Reading and You scheme, a "bibliotherapy" project in Calderdale and Kirklees (See Friday magazine, May 24, 2002) which promotes the health benefits of reading by recommending books to individuals Set them free

What to look for

Prisoners' children can experience a variety of emotions, ranging from pain, shame, guilt, anger, hostility, or even relief. They fear losing the other parent, people finding out what has happened, and being bullied at school.

As a result of internalising these feelings, children often suffer anxiety, depression and loss of self-esteem. Outward symptoms can include bedwetting, nightmares, temper tantrums, aggressive behaviour, withdrawal or refusal to go to school.

Teachers should look for the sudden absence of a parent, remarks by children and other parents, information from support staff such as cleaners and lunchtime organisers, deterioration of behaviour, unexplained absences, information from the carer or information from the child.

Pupils with a parent in prison might display moodiness, aggression, chattering, bullying, difficulty with peers, sadness or withdrawal, lack of concentration, lack of interest in work or antagonism towards authority figures.

How teachers can help

* See children as individuals who have particular needs

* Be non-judgmental: the child has not committed a crime

* Avoid treating the child as a victim or being over-protective

* Acknowledge the child's own preferences

* Avoid asking about the crime

The above information and advice is taken from Working With Children of Prisoners: a resource for teachers by Sally Ramsden (Save the Children, pound;7.50). Information reproduced by permission of Save the Children. Distributed by Plymbridge: telephone, 01752 202301; email, orders@ plymbridge.com; fax, 01752 202333. The Federation of Prisoners' Families Support Groups produces leaflets and other publications relevant to teachers. These include a report, Supporting Prisoners' Children in School, and a leaflet, Who's Guilty?, based on interviews with children. For more information, write to Unit 102, Riverbank House, 1 Putney Bridge Approach, London SW6 3JD. Telephone, 020 7384 1987; visit the federation's website at www.fpfsg.org.uk; email, info@fpfsg.org.uk

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