Service in the spotlight: Prison family support

Service in the spotlight: Prison family support

Having a father in prison can be very traumatic for children; the pain of separation and the anxiety involved in visits to a grim building with uniformed officers and tight security can be a huge burden. 

The experience can drive children of prisoners to develop behavioural problems and ultimately get involved in crime themselves (63% of boys with a parent in prison go on to offend)*.

It’s also hard for the parent in prison – often they don’t see their children grow up, and find it really challenging to reintegrate back into the family on release.

HMP Lewes is one of 12 prisons where Spurgeons is contracted to provide support to prisoners and their families. The Family Service Manager there says: ”We want to provide a warm welcome and a safe and homely space in which visiting families can relax.

”We have been helped by visitor families, local charities and a Ministry of Justice grant to turn an old Portacabin into a Visitor’s Centre for the families we support.

”We commissioned local children’s artist Guy Parker-Rees, to paint a cheerful mural, and brought in sofas, pot plants, toys and games.”

Guy Parker-Rees’ cheerful mural at the visitors centre at HMP Lewes

”establishing a really friendly and welcoming atmosphere in a place that can be frightening for visitors.”

Violet Hancock, the High Sheriff of East Sussex, gave the new Visitor’s Centre an Award for ”establishing a really friendly and welcoming atmosphere in a place that can be frightening for visitors.”

Visiting families gave it their approval too. One said, ”I got tea, warmth and sympathy”. Another said, ”They have taught me to stay calm. They make you feel more confident and they really listen and support you – friendly and helpful, absolutely brilliant.”

Creating a ‘family friendly’ service can be a challenge in older prisons where the layout is inflexible. Naomi, Family Service Manager at HMP Norwich, says, ”There is no room for a play area inside the Visits Hall, so when families go there to visit their dad, the children can get bored. If so, our volunteers can collect them and take them back to play in the Visitor Centre play area. This also gives parents the chance to chat in private.

”Prisoners may be allowed an occasional Family Day or Children’s Visit. Dads aren’t allowed to move around on an ordinary visit, but on a Family Day, we organise activities for them to do with their children. We’re restricted by space and tight security as to what we can offer – no glue in crafts, for example. We might buy a cake which they can decorate together with Smarties and icing.”

The team have even been known to include sandwich-making as an activity so that financially strapped families who have had long and costly journeys don’t need to buy.

One dad commented, ”These visits are very important to me and my family. The freedom we have together, away from other prisoners is the main reason. (It) helps to bond with your children on a better level.”

Father and child

Our team at Norwich also won an award for their Storybook Dads project. Our dedicated practitioner, Dianne Sparkes, records fathers reading bedtime stories for their children.

Music and sound effects are added, and the recording sent – along with a copy of the book – to the child. One young recipient said, ”I miss my Daddy… when I feel lonely, I listen to my CD and hearing his voice makes me feel better.”

Even though father and child are worlds apart, dads in prison and their children can enjoy the simple pleasure of a bedtime story together. 

*This figure is quoted in The Importance os Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational crime, Lord Farmer, August 2017 (MoJ) where the source of this number and content is explained in greater detail.

About Spurgeons Prison-based Family Support Services:

Spurgeons delivers family support services in 12 prisons across England. These services provide family support services for prisoners and their families and friends who visit them, with a particular focus on children and strengthening family relationships. We appreciate how important prison visits are for everyone involved. Our aim is to make them less daunting so that the time spent together helps families to re-connect in a positive way. We are always here to offer practical and emotional support.

To learn more about our work in prisons, click here.