Comment Blog 7 April, 2017

Tackling disadvantage (V): children of prisoners

The importance of prisoner rehabilitation is no longer a topic of dispute. The recent Prison and Courts Bill enshrined in law, for the first time, that “reforming prisoners” is a key purpose of prisons, and that the Secretary of State for Justice is directly responsible for this. Barriers to rehabilitation, in the form of violence, self-harm, overcrowding, drug addiction, low education levels and mental health problems, are daunting, but policymakers and criminal justice services alike are aware and alert to them as a priority. If successful, reoffending rates, homelessness and unemployment among released prisoners may reduce, to the benefit of society as much as the individual.

However, improving the futures of men and women leaving prison is about more than their individual lives. The charity Barnado’s estimates that 200,000 children in England and Wales are affected by parental imprisonment. While the white paper Prison safety and reform, released in November, refers to the importance of connecting prisoners to their families in order to improve their rehabilitation, the wellbeing of their children has received less attention.

This shouldn’t be the case. One of the most popular words in public services is ‘prevention’, and with good reason. From health to criminal justice, an emphasis on prevention rather than cure can save much pain and resource. When it comes to the children of prisoners, Barnado’s claim that 65 per cent of boys with a father in prison will go on to offend themselves. While this does not isolate the effect of parental imprisonment from other multiple factors of deprivation, it is an overwhelming statistic. It is much higher than the overall adult and junior reoffending rate, which according to the National Audit Office was 26.2 per cent in 2013-14, at an estimated annual cost of up to £10.7 billion.

There is therefore an obvious financial argument for preventative action aimed at the children of prisoners. But more compelling are the dire personal consequences. Parental imprisonment not only makes young people more likely to offend, they are also at significantly greater risk of experiencing mental health problems and difficulties at school. Together, these factors constitute a social justice issue at scale.

This begs the question of how to help them overcome the serious disadvantage of having a parent in prison. Last week, Reform held its annual criminal justice conference, and one of the speakers, Jerry Petherick of G4S, shared some of the early outcome data from a project called Invisible Walls Wales, running at HMP Parc. By involving families with prisoner rehabilitation and working with social services, charities and schools, the project, he said, has achieved some impressive results. School attendance rates for children of the relevant prisoner cohort increased from 85 to 92 per cent, the proportion of children classified as ‘at-risk’ went from 20 to 5 per cent, and the proportion requiring ongoing social services support from 65 to 32 per cent. Prior to the project 9 per cent of the children were classified as isolated and 11 per cent were victims of bullying. These numbers went to 1 and 0 per cent respectively.

The full evaluation is due out in the summer, but this early data seems to show that the Invisible Walls Wales model can make a very real difference to the lives of this group of young people. With the Government’s emphasis on social mobility, prison governors and policymakers alike should learn from such projects and, through their efforts to reform the prison service, also improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged children.