Behind bars but pressing ahead

31st May 2013 at 01:00
Henry Hepburn opens the doors on prison-based continuing professional development for teachers

When a person is sent to prison, it affects all those connected to them. It is, however, particularly tough for their children, as the substantial trauma of losing the presence of a parent in this way is made worse because of the negative reactions that can follow.

"Having a parent go to prison is like a bereavement, with one crucial difference - the sense of stigma and shame (that children of prisoners experience)," says Sarah Roberts, an educational consultant with the Families Outside charity, which supports Scottish families caught up in the criminal justice system.

That stigma can result in a child of a prison inmate being ostracised and judged by fellow students and sometimes teachers can fall into the same trap. This is concerning because children of prisoners need the support of their school and of their teachers to navigate successfully through a situation that has occurred through no fault of their own.

To ensure that teachers give the right support, and that they ensure students do too, Families Outside has teamed up with Edinburgh Prison, one of 16 prisons in Scotland, to run continuing professional development (CPD) sessions within the prison walls, in an effort to put teachers in the shoes of students who have a parent behind bars. The intention is that through better understanding, better support can be offered.

Ms Roberts came up with the idea for prison-based CPD when, as a support for learning teacher at an Edinburgh secondary, she was finding it hard to get through to the family of a girl whose mother was in prison.

"I was frustrated, I couldn't see why the family was resistant," she recalls. "So I went to see her mother in prison and it changed my world view."

The CPD sessions begin in Scotland's only purpose-built centre for prison visitors. Run by the Salvation Army, it has a soft play area, creche and arts activities. "We try to make a pleasant experience for children coming into the establishment," says security manager Derek Taylor.

The experience then moves into the prison itself, with teachers being body-searched as they pass through security. Unlike in English prisons, staff will not search children, who will be asked only to remove their coats, although Marley the Labrador may be on hand to check for drugs. Children stand in front of their parents, and after Marley has done his work they are allowed to pet him.

Through security, the teachers enter the open-plan visitors' room, which is about the size of three tennis courts. Four phalanxes of 12 sets of tables and chairs - identified by large black letters and numbers - stretch from one end to the other. Pillars down the middle of the room - painted "prison magnolia" - have recently been given splodges of colour, and the left-hand wall is covered in bright children's paintings.

The teachers are informed about the conditions a child will experience during these visits. Eight staff roam the room during visits and one monitors CCTV. As the child enters, the prisoners will already be seated. Visitors are not allowed any physical contact with the prisoner until they, too, are seated. For the duration of the 30- or 45- minute visit, children are allowed to sit on the prisoner's knee, but spouses and partners are allowed only to reach across the table to make physical contact.

Mr Taylor explains that staff make an effort for the room to be full in every visiting session. He explains that if there is free space, prisoners can get double visits. Overall, he feels the situation is much better than it once was for families. "It's all about making it as friendly and family-focused as possible. We've moved on in the past 20-odd years - we're more educated now," he explains.

Indeed, the prison service has done a lot of work recently to make having a family member in prison as easy for the family as possible. Scottish Prison Service chief executive Colin McConnell has heavily promoted family-friendly policies, though one of these generated much media debate earlier this year after he suggested that prisoners should be allowed mobile phones in cells to keep in touch with their families.

Whether they agree with such policies or not, the attempts to change a mindset should hit a chord with teachers on the CPD visits. Mr Taylor admits that it can be hard to coax long-serving prison workers out of a "them and us" mindset, to see things from the families' point of view. This is a transition teachers need to make, too. Thankfully, the CPD sessions seem to be having some success facilitating that.

"Holding the CPD in here, you get inside the children's head," says Rhona Kennedy, a support for learning teacher at Edinburgh's Sciennes Primary School. Her colleague Carolyn Anstruther, deputy head, says: "When you're here, you can really empathise with the whole family."

Empathy may not be enough, as guidance for families is also required. Ms Roberts explains that families have a tendency to shield the truth from children - often to counterproductive effect.

"A lot of children will not realise it's prison - they're told they are going to `dad's work'," Ms Roberts says. She cites the example of one four-year-old who was told that her dad was helping Santa. By February, when he had not returned, she was asking why Santa still had him.

It's issues like this that show the value of a teacher having a better understanding of how prison affects children and what those children have to go through each time they visit. Through better understanding, better support can be offered to the child and to their families. And there is nothing better for understanding than seeing it for yourself.

What teachers should know about prison

Key facts presented to teachers during CPD at Edinburgh Prison

- A third of children of imprisoned parents witness their parent being arrested.

- Maintaining close family ties reduces reoffending by up to six times.

- 50 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their families.

- Children with a parent in prison are three times more likely to have serious mental health issues than those in the general population.

- An estimated 27,000 children in Scotland experience the imprisonment of a parent every year - double the rate of parental divorce.

Photo credit: Alamy

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