(Project director Alan Hooker and support worker Theresa Francis. Pic Tom Parkes)
A south London family centre provides a space for families with loved ones in jail to receive advice and support. Anabel Unity Sale reports
The impact of a prison sentence goes beyond the individual who loses their freedom. The jailing of a loved one can have a damaging effect on children, partners, parents and friends.
There is no statutory agency dedicated to addressing the needs of prisoners’ families and children, and no information or support is routinely offered to them. But one charity striving to do this is the Prisoners’ Friends and Families Service (PFFS).
It was started in 1965 by the philanthropist Lady Sylvia Chancellor after the husband of her cleaner, Mrs B, was arrested for fraud and subsequently imprisoned. Mrs B arrived distraught at work the next morning as she had no idea what to do. Chancellor wanted to help Mrs B, and other women like her, so she set up the Prisoners’ Wives Advisory Service centre in the crypt of St Botolph’s Church in the City of London.
Only centre in London
Now called PFFS, the charity is based in Borough, south London, and provides information, advice and support to prisoners’ loved ones. It also runs the only centre for prisoners’ families serving London.
Theresa Francis is the family centre worker. Every Tuesday, between 12pm and 3pm, she runs a support session for between eight and 15 women. Some of the women attend with their children.
The family centre consists of two rooms: one is full of comfy sofas where women can meet up and talk. In the other room, organisations involved in the criminal justice system lead workshops about subjects that affect the women. The walls are covered with photographs of the service users and their children on an Easter egg hunt and at a Christmas party.
The women meet over lunch and then attend a workshop organised by the charity Training and Consultancy Team about prison visiting procedures.
Francis, who has been in post for five years, believes the service is invaluable for those who have nowhere else to turn. “Our women are grateful for the little we do because they can talk freely about their issues here and how they’re feeling and not feel isolated from other people,” she says.
Volunteers, who have often been service users themselves, attend crown and magistrates courts across London to tell the partners and friends of people being sentenced that help is available.
One of the main barriers to people receiving advice and support is the reluctance among some to admit that a member of their family is in prison. Francis says some mothers may fear the stigma attached to the fact that the father of their child is in jail.
PFFS director Alan Hooker says this can be a problem, and the organisation often acts as advocates for its users. “Many families have a distrust of statutory organisations and don’t admit to being a prisoner’s family. We help to strengthen and empower them to get their needs met,” he says.
Crack cocaine addict
One woman who uses the family centre regularly has a son in prison, and her adult daughter, a crack cocaine addict, has also been in jail. “I come here to meet different people because we’re all in the same boat. I have friends in the same position as me but they don’t come because they’re worried about what others say about them.” For her, one of the most important things about the service is that it “gives us all hope”.
Hooker wants PFFS to extend its work with councils and improve its working relationship with social workers. The project is talking to Tower Hamlets’ children’s services about becoming involved in its family intervention programme. Hooker says: “We know we offer a good service and an important resource to prisoners’ families.”
FACTS AND FIGURES
● In 2004, 92% of fathers in prison said that their partner was looking after their children, compared with 25% of mothers in prison.
● Every year at least 150,000 children in England and Wales have a parent imprisoned. At least 7% of children will experience the imprisonment of a parent during their schooling.
● Two-thirds of women prisoners have dependent children, 34% of whom are aged under five and 40% are aged from five to 10.
● Recognise that some individuals may be reluctant to disclose that their relative or partner is a prisoner because they distrust statutory agencies.
● Work hard to earn a client’s trust and deliver what you say you will – other staff may have let them down in the past.
● Direct clients to other supporting agencies.
● Information about Prisons’ Week, which runs from the 16 November
This article is published in the 13 November edition of Community Care under the headline “How a room with no bars helps prisoners’ families”