Training course to support children affected by the ‘Hidden Sentence’ of parental imprisonment

A view of a prison yard from behind bars

Training course to support children affected by the ‘Hidden Sentence’ of parental imprisonment

At HMP Winchester’s visitors centre, every day inside the prison walls presents challenges. ‘You can’t assume anything of the people coming in and what this visit means to them,’ says Caroline Feltham-King, a volunteer with Spurgeons’ Invisible Walls project. ‘Some have travelled long distances, and some are very anxious when they arrive.’

Spurgeons’ Hidden Sentence training is given to prepare all staff within the prison family support services delivered by Spurgeons. It aims to educate colleagues on what the families of prisoners face, and how judgement from society hands them their own ‘hidden sentence’. Now, this training is available to external professionals who work with family members affected by the imprisonment of a loved one. 

Eye-opening facts

The training contains startling statistics about the families of prisoners. ‘It was a real surprise to me to find out that around 59% of the male prison population have children*,’ explains Caroline. ‘The other statistic that has stayed with me is that it is estimated that 65%** of boys with a father in prison will go on to become an offender. You think- can that be right?! It’s a shocking statistic and a confirmation of intergenerational trauma and deprivation. Those statistics alone helped to prepare me for my role.’

Caroline also describes the course as full of information about the difficulties facing prisoners and their families at each stage of their journey through the judicial system. ‘We learnt about the family’s journey from pre-arrest to resettlement from multiple perspectives – prisoner, partner and children. To be aware of that journey has been really useful when helping visitors of all ages feel comfortable coming to the prison,’ adds Caroline.

The suffering of families and ‘disenfranchised grief’

Families left behind with a loved one in prison can face all manner of problems such as judgement by the community, financial issues or even the loss of their home. Relationships can also become strained, not only between partners but also between parents and children.

‘The concept given in the training that was really powerful was that of disenfranchised grief,’ she says. ‘It’s about significant loss where open grieving is not possible. Families can’t be honest within their community and it is experienced especially by the children. It’s all about the stigma of prison. I found that terminology so helpful.’

For volunteers like Caroline, understanding the struggles of the families informs their emotional and practical responses to people visiting the prison, whatever their age. Children love the play areas within the visitors’ centre and a valued part of the volunteer role is to be on the floor having fun too!

Vital knowledge for an important role

The knowledge gained from the Hidden Sentence training is crucial to assisting those who come into the intimidating prison environment to visit a loved one.

‘Someone wrote this note in a visitors’ book: “The visitors’ centre is a hand of humanity in a very cold, dark place.”,’ says Caroline. ‘That quote has stayed with me – I have the opportunity as a volunteer to be that hand of humanity. It’s a privilege.’

*Action for Prisoners Families 2012 | Children Families – Impact Pathways

**Action for Prisoners Families 2012 | Children Families – Impact Pathways


Spurgeons Hidden Sentence Training:

At Spurgeons, we know that prisoners’ families serve their own hidden sentences when a family member is sent to prison. It can be hard to find support for a variety of reasons.

It can impact families’ financial, practical and emotional well-being, negatively influencing their contact and relationships during and after imprisonment.

Hidden Sentence is a short course for professionals who work with families, giving them an overview of the issues facing prisoners’ families who are affected by the criminal justice system and a range of strategies and resources to help support them.

Find out more, here. 

About Spurgeons Prison-based Family Support Services:

Spurgeons delivers family support services at HMP Winchester. 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 reconnect in a positive way. We are always here to offer practical and emotional support.

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