8 January 2024

What about prisoners’ children?


There exists a group of perhaps 300,000 British children who are three times more likely than their peers to develop mental health problems. These same children are more likely to miss school, get involved in antisocial behaviour, violence and even crime. They should be a priority for any government but no government department is responsible for them. We don’t even keep an official count of these children. They are the children of prisoners.

In addition to being a former prisoner, I am now a postgraduate researcher at the University of Southampton, where I am exploring the impact of parental imprisonment. It’s remarkable how little we know. There is no statutory mechanism to identify children whose parent has been imprisoned. Every prisoner arriving in custody is asked if they’re responsible for any children, but distrust of authority and fear of social services often mean that inmates don’t disclose this. As about 96% of the prison population are men, who are rarely the primary carer, there’s even less incentive for many prisoners to share their children’s details. The result is that some children are forgotten. Children Heard and Seen, a charity focused on supporting children of prisoners and their families, often encounter situations where children have been left in the care of older siblings, or even entirely on their own.

The disruption starts before imprisonment. A child may experience a dawn raid, the safety of their home shattered at 4am, siblings screaming as strangers seize their parent and turn the house upside down. A few hours later, they’ll go to school. Unless the parent has been arrested for sex offences the police won’t inform anyone, so teachers and other staff will have no idea why that child is distracted, upset or angry. 

If local or national media report the case, things can get much worse for these children. Although entirely innocent, feelings of shame and stigma are common. When parents are accused or convicted of particularly egregious crimes their houses and families can even become the targets of vigilantes. As a result some families have to flee their homes, further traumatising the children.    

In such circumstances children can have very complex feelings. Not all imprisoned parents are figures of stable, safe and secure love to their children. Some young people simultaneously experience sadness that their father is in prison, and relief that their mother’s abuser has been locked away. In one case a young person said she liked it when Dad was inside, because it was the only time she had regular contact with him. These complex and conflicting emotions can produce further feelings of guilt. 

And yet, because of the stigma of their parents’ crime these children often struggle to find support in social networks or wider society. Families may even try to mislead children, pretending that their parent is working overseas, in the hope that ignorance will keep them safe. In the era of social media this is harder than ever, and these children may hear the truth not from a trusted adult, but a bully at school.  

It’s no surprise that they often struggle at school, or end up in trouble with the law. But this is by no means inevitable; Children Heard and Seen report that of the more than a thousand children they’ve supported, only 0.5% have offended. It is the unresolved trauma of parental imprisonment that seems to cause terrible outcomes, not the event itself. With the right support, these lives can be transformed for the better.

As a first step the Department of Education should be made responsible for supporting the children of prisoners, with the Pupil Premium incentivising and supporting this. Pupil Premium exists to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children. Originally this meant children in receipt of free school meals, those in care and those who had been in care but similar funding is now available for the children of serving Armed Forces members, and applying it to the children of prisoners, at a cost of around £100m per year, would ensure that these young people receive the support they need, and don’t succumb to poor mental health, loss of interest in education or criminality. These early interventions are the right thing to do, and will save a great deal more money in the future by helping these young people to live pro-social, productive and happy lives.

The children of prisoners are victims; of their parents’ crime and of the way society treats them. The UK is not, by and large, an Old Testament society, but it seems we still punish children for their parents’ sins. Every child in Britain should be able to live a happy and fulfilled life, and we need to ensure that the children of prisoners are able to do so.

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David Shipley is a writer, speaker and former prisoner.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.