Long arm of the law

Economic hardship, feelings of loss, and being shunned by local
people are all among experiences shared by young people who have a
prisoner in the family. Families support federation policy director
Kelli Brown reports.

The current prison population in England and Wales stands at
nearly 70,000, of whom a growing proportion are women. Around
two-thirds have children under 18. In September 2000, there were
more than 10,000 under-21s in prison. This means there are many
thousands of children and young people in this country with a
prisoner in the family. Unfortunately, however, there exist no
accurate figures on the actual numbers of children and young people
affected by the imprisonment of a close family member. The
estimates which are available – at least 125,000 children with a
parent in prison – are based on information gathered when the
prison population stood at around 45,000.1,2 And of
course, these estimates do not take account of those with a sibling
in prison.

This lack of information about children and young people with a
prisoner in the family was recognised by The Diana, Princess of
Wales Memorial Fund, which has funded the Federation of Prisoners’
Families Support Groups (FPFSG) Young People’s Project. The Young
People’s Project is a three-year project which began in the year
2000 and has the aim of identifying and addressing the needs of
teenagers with a close family member in prison. This project is now
in its final year and will present its report at a conference in
early 2003.

In its first year, the Young People’s Project conducted
qualitative research with teenagers aged between 12 and 18 with a
parent or sibling in prison. The project heard from 53 young people
living in London, Durham and Manchester. The research report,
No-one’s Ever Asked Me, highlighted the isolation,
discrimination and emotional pressures this population of young
people face as a result of having a family member in prison.

Seventy-five per cent of the young people surveyed had
experienced changes in their family beyond the removal of the
prisoner. One-third of respondents had been removed into other care
arrangements or had moved with their family to other parts of the
country. Most young people mentioned a decrease in finances,
treats, activities and celebrating special occasions as part of the
impact of having a loved one in prison. A belief that life is more
stressful within the family when a relative is imprisoned was also
evident. Some young people had tried to take care of younger
siblings to take responsibility and pressure off their mothers.
They had also tried to protect the family from rumours and negative

Most young people with a prisoner in the family confront these
issues with very little support, other than that given by their
carer (usually their mother). Over 80 per cent of respondents said
that nobody had asked them at any stage how they were coping with
the imprisonment of their relative. Most said that they did not
tell and did not talk about their situation and that when people
did find out about the imprisonment, they were “looked at funny”
and “treated differently”.

Within all of this, too, young people very clearly wanted to
maintain a relationship with their imprisoned relative. However,
visiting regimes were often described as extremely difficult and
unpleasant experiences. The issues which concerned young people
most when visiting were their inability to visit unless accompanied
by an adult, the boredom experienced while waiting to be allowed in
for a visit, and the lack of privacy and individual time with the

When asked how they would like to be supported, the young people
said they would like:

– Someone to talk to, in confidence and outside the
– Help with visiting and associated practical issues.
– To be kept informed and provided with access to
– Provision of a youth space within visiting areas.

The Young People’s Project has now developed a number of
initiatives based on these findings. A Support Worker has been
employed by the North East Prison After Care Society (Nepacs) and
is based at Durham prison, providing an activities room for teenage
visitors and acting as an escort on occasions where a young person
has no other appropriate adult to accompany them on a visit.

Feedback from the young people using this service suggests that
it is very much appreciated and has served to make visits more
bearable. The project has also recently joined in partnership with
the Norwich YMCA to train pastoral care workers based in 10
secondary schools in the Norfolk and Suffolk region to provide
counselling support to young people in their schools with a
prisoner in the family. A young people’s advisory group provides
the project with input into the development and design of resources
for teenagers affected by a family imprisonment. A booklet for
young people with a prisoner in the family will be published by the
end of April.

Perhaps most importantly, this population of young people are
finally beginning to have a voice which is being heard and
acknowledged. It is their stories which provide the greatest
challenge to us to recognise their rights and to ensure they are

Young people have a right to maintain contacts with both
parents, a right to be heard and to express their opinion in all
matters affecting them and a right to a private family

All names used in this article, and the panels, have been
changed to protect identities. The prison named in the visiting
order illustration is fictional, as are the names.

1 Ramsden, Working with Children of
Prisoners: A Resource for Teachers
, Save the Children Fund,

2 Shaw, Children of Imprisoned
, Hodder and Stoughton, 1987

3 United Nations Convention on the Rights of
the Child, articles 9 (3) and 12; and Human Rights Act, article 8,

Kelli Brown is policy director of Federation of
Prisoners’ Families Support Groups

– The FPFSG encourages the development of, and helps represent,
organisations which provide assistance to the families of people in
prison. No-one’s Ever Asked Me: Young People with a Prisoner in
the Family
, is available from priced £5 plus £2
p&p. E-mail: info@fpfsg.org.uk Tel:020 8741
4578, website: www.fpfsg.org.uk

by neighbours

Joanna is 16 years old and lives with her mum and a younger
brother. Her eldest brother has been given a long prison term for a
violent offence. The night her brother was arrested, the family
came home to find their house smashed up from the police raid. They
did not know what was happening and had no idea what to do. The
case was reported in the local media and the family were taunted by
neighbours. At school, the teacher had heard about the crime and in
front of the whole class had asked Joanna how the victim was.
Joanna was extremely embarrassed and ashamed that the teacher had
done this to her in front of the class. Joanna does not like to
visit her brother because it is too difficult. She also says that
“him being in prison costs us money. It costs a lot, having to buy
him things, phone cards and that”. Joanna says when her brother is
released the whole family is going to move far away where nobody
knows anything about them.

No one to talk to

John, aged 15, lives at home with his mother. He has no brothers
or sisters. His mother and father have been separated for a number
of years. John’s father is currently serving a prison sentence in a
prison two hours away from where John lives. John would like to
visit his father but his mother does not want John to have anything
to do with him. Occasionally, John’s mother does take him to the
prison to visit but he does not feel she is as supportive in this
as she should be. John is not able to gain independent access to
information and does not know what his rights are. He does not want
to upset his mother but has no one else to talk to.

So far away

Louise and Kirsty (aged 16 and 14) have lived with their
grandparents since their mother was sent to prison two years ago.
Their mother has been moved to a prison hundreds of miles away from
them. Because they have so far to travel now, Louise and Kirsty
only visit their mother once every six months. They are able to
have extended visits over a weekend when they do visit. They are
very worried about their mother’s well-being and visits are
difficult because they are tired after their journey and upset by
their mother’s sadness. Louise says: “If we don’t visit she’ll
think we don’t love her and she’ll harm herself again.”

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