Putting Teachers Behind Bars
32 student teachers went to prison last week – but not because of any crime they had committed. They found themselves inside HMP Edinburgh as part of a new initiative which aims to help teachers (and those in training) explore the impact that the imprisonment of a close relative can have on children and to learn how school communities can provide key support for them and their carers.
As the students made their way through security, a range of emotions was evident on their faces: anxiety (“Will I be searched?”); nervousness (“What awaits me on the other side of that door?”); worry (“Have I done something wrong; brought something in that I shouldn’t have?”); and fear (“What will that sniffer dog do?”) – the same things, in fact, that a child might feel when visiting a prison in addition to the shame and stigma that parental imprisonment inevitably brings, not to mention the trauma of watching mum or dad being taken away.
In the visits room, struck by the distance between the prisoner’s seat and those of the visitors, as well as the austerity of the surroundings (“It just looks so bare!”), the students were presented with some statistics:
- A third of children of imprisoned parents witness the arrest of their parent;
- Maintaining close family ties reduces reoffending by up to 6 times;
- 50% of prisoners lose contact with their families;
- Children with a parent in prison are 3 times more likely to have serious mental health issues than children in the general population; and (the one which caused the most audible gasp)
- An estimated 27,000 children in Scotland experience the imprisonment of a parent every year (estimates for England and Wales are 200,000) – double the rate of parental divorce.
But this was not just about numbers. Statistics are important, but the stories behind them really make the impact. And so the students entered into, and discussed, stories based on real children’s experiences. They heard about Jodie* (age 10) who, since her dad went to prison, hasn’t been invited to any classmates’ parties. Her attendance at school is patchy, and her teacher has found it hard to make contact with Jodie’s mum. Then there is Josh (14) who, because his mum is in prison, is now living with his aunt and has had to change school. Rumours have started that Josh is a thief, and there are concerns about his use of alcohol. Chloe (11) won’t sleep in her own bed since witnessing the arrest of her stepdad, and she is withdrawing from school life.
These stories are complex, and there were no easy answers offered, but they gave the student teachers an opportunity to confront the issues faced by the children of prisoners: grief, trauma, bullying, isolation, change of care-giver and school, victimisation, carrying secrets, and harmful behaviour patterns. They learned that children affected by imprisonment are extremely vulnerable and yet remain largely overlooked within the school system, in effect serving their own sentence. And they realised that the assumption that children of prisoners will end up in prison too (one that children affected unfortunately all too often pick up on), is devastating and limits their potential.
Most importantly, however, these student teachers learned that by reaching out sensitively to families and offering support, they might make all the difference to the children in their care and that ultimately this could help to reduce reoffending as well as decrease intergenerational crime. Working alongside criminal justice and voluntary organisations, there is so much that schools can do including:
- ensuring that all staff are aware and trained in how to deal with issues around imprisonment;
- being a community that is aware and supportive of children affected by imprisonment – a ‘safe space’ where children and their carers can share what is going on;
- actively building positive relationships with families affected by imprisonment and help carers to access additional forms of support;
- providing information for children and families affected (posters, leaflets, helpline numbers);
- liaising with partner agencies (sharing information appropriately and sensitively whilst bearing in mind the family’s right to confidentiality);
- keeping the parent in prison informed (copies of school reports, newsletters, phone calls, visits if possible etc.) in liaison with outside carers and prison staff (e.g. Family Contact Officers);
- actively seeking to reduce bullying by incorporating issues around prison, crime, blame and punishment into the curriculum (e.g. PSE, Modern Studies, Citizenship);
- authorising visits to prison on school days and offering support to children following these visits;
- encouraging ongoing contact (copies of work, pictures, photos from trips etc.) between the child and the parent in prison;
- providing work for in-prison homework groups where available; and
- considering in-school support groups in areas where there are concentrated numbers of affected families.
As they made their way out of the prison, the students acknowledged that they were now more confident in how to recognise, engage, and support children and families affected by imprisonment. It was, in the words of one participant, a “very, very useful experience, and (the) information was extremely relevant. First time we have had any input about children who have parents in prison – should definitely be more widely available for those working with children.” And another: “I’m quite changed by what I saw and heard.” Perhaps we need to send more teachers to prison.
* All names have been changed.
Blog by our Child & Family Support Manager, Sarah Roberts
– as seen on No Offence!
NO OFFENCE! is an award-winning Community Interest Company with a vision, ‘to be the leading cross sector criminal justice community in the world.” Our mission is to support and encourage the criminal justice sector to exchange information, collaborate and promote wider societal understanding of the solutions needed to effect positive change.