Comment, analysis and debate for those with an interest in the issues facing women in the criminal justice system...

Comment and Analysis

Guest Blog: Listening to the real experts
18/12/2017 15:57:00 by Sarah Beresford

Back in September, I was asked to speak at the For Fangers Pårørende[i] (FFP) conference in Oslo. FFP is an organisation working with families and friends of prisoners in Norway, and this year’s conference was entitled, ‘Having a parent in prison: the way children see it.’ I’ve attended, and spoken at, many conferences about children affected by imprisonment, but what really impressed me about this one was that most of the speakers were children - the very people who know exactly what it is like to have a parent in prison. Some were on video, while others spoke live, including a performance from the World Slam Poetry Champion 2017, whose father was in prison. One of the most moving sessions was a Q&A with three children asking questions of senior prison staff, including the Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service. The children (aged 9, 14, and 17) wanted to know why there were no activities for them to do during visits (the toys available were all for younger children) and why visits were so boring for them. They wanted a garden area they could play in and more fresh air in the visits’ room (this was Norway!) and asked if the prison could organise a family day with a guided tour of the prison so they could see and understand where their parents were now living. They were also able to talk about positive experiences that had helped them (activities such as an Easter Egg hunt and the introduction of Children’s Officers, whose role it is to support children visiting the prison). Because the children’s questions and comments came from their own needs and anxieties (it is very common for children with a parent in prison to worry about their mum or dad’s living conditions), the impact on the prison staff was clear – they said that they had learned more in the half hour with the children than they had in years doing their job.

The FFP conference got me thinking about how we hear people’s voices and really listen to their stories. We often hear academics or practitioners talking about how people feel when a family member goes to prison, but hearing people’s own stories in their own voices is particularly powerful. I’m currently working on the “What about me?” project within the Prison Reform Trust’s Transforming Lives programme, which aims to highlight the impact on children of a mother’s involvement in the criminal justice system.  In partnership with Families Outside, we have issued a call for evidence so that young people’s views and experiences inform the outcomes and recommendations of the project, and we have met with mothers who are currently in prison as well as those recently released. At the beginning of December, we invited academics, policy makers, practitioners, and experts through experience to participate in a Roundtable event in Liverpool to consider the available research and discuss how to ensure that the best interests of children are recognised and protected at key stages of the criminal justice process.

It was our experts who really made the impact: Bethany (all names have been changed) was our youngest at just 17 and spoke about what it was like for her when her mum went to prison. “It changed everything, not having my mum around”, she told us. “My life fell apart. I was bullied at school; I cried myself to sleep. If I hadn’t had support [from PSS[ii]], I don’t know where I’d be.” Rachel served her sentence in the community; she didn’t get a prison sentence yet still had to endure the pain of a 5-month separation from her children with little support or explanation (she was told she would probably be going to prison so it would be ‘best for the children’ to live elsewhere while she waited for her hearing). The damage to her children has been extensive. Anne joined us on a ROTL (Release on Temporary Licence) arrangement from her prison. She spoke of the huge impact her sentence has had on all of her children and in particular on her son. “He’s angry,” she said, “and isn’t coping well without me there. I’m really worried about him.”

By its very nature, a Roundtable discussion means that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, which makes for a more engaging and meaningful discussion as well as being transformative for those speaking. Rachel explains: “I felt like a weight had been lifted off me. My voice mattered, and the fact that people actually listened was amazing.” And this wasn’t just true for our experts: others present also appreciated hearing from people who themselves were directly affected by the issues being discussed. Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside, Emily Spurrell, attended the Roundtable and said, “It is important for those who make decisions to hear from the people they are making decisions about.” Of course, experts through experience who are able to speak out need the right support, and there will be times when it is more appropriate for someone to speak on a person’s (or group’s) behalf; keeping people safe is paramount. With support, and in the right context, however, it is life-changing for everyone.