Safe Ground - Using drama to educate prisoners and young people at risk in the community


Honesty: Always the best policy?

Last week, I attended a conference at entitled ‘Children and Families Coping in Custody’.

On a panel discussion in the morning, a number of women in custody (or residents, as they are more helpfully known at this particular prison), all of them mothers, talked about the impact of imprisonment upon themselves and their children, and particularly about how their children had been supported to cope with this traumatic experience.

The women discussed the fact that next to family, the most important source of (potential) support for their children was their schools. I say potential because their experiences of informing schools of the situation had not always been positive – one woman reported how her daughter, exhibiting challenging behaviour as a result of her emotional upset, was told by a teacher that “you’ll turn out just the same as your mother”.

We know from speaking to many of our Fathers Inside (FI) graduates that the fear of this sort of reaction means that many families experiencing custody choose not to disclose the fact of a custodial sentence to schools and other agencies. Exposing your child to the threat (whether real or perceived) of stigma, bullying and isolation is not something that any parent wants to do. ‘Honesty is always the best policy’ is all very well, but what if you’ve got something to lose? What if you don’t know what reaction you’re going to get? Honesty is scary.

That’s why we’ve revised FI to include a schools’ session, where a Head Teacher from a local school comes into the prison and takes part in a structured Q&A discussion, the agenda of which is led by the men. The schools’ session aims to ensure that FI students are provided with information about the type of support they and their children can expect from schools when the family is coping with the imprisonment of a parent, and also about the type of reaction they can expect not to be faced with.

Another woman on the panel shared a story about the time, fairly soon after she had gone into custody, that her son had been due to play in a school rugby match. On the day of the match, along with the usual crowds of supporters, a number of journalists (hoping, presumably, to supplement the existing news coverage of this mother’s trial) also arrived.

However, they weren’t able to do what they intended, because every member of the boy’s team had turned up with his name on the back of their rugby shirt: wanting to protect him, they’d closed ranks, and literally ‘had his back’. In order for this gesture of solidarity to happen however, an honest conversation (one that probably wasn’t easy to initiate) had had to take place between the family and the school.

At Safe Ground, we believe that open and honest communication is central to healthy relationships of all kinds, whether those relationships are between parents and schools, between people in prison and policy makers, or between different groups in the community.

It’s what’s at the heart of all of our programmes, and it’s a theme we’re going to be developing in really exciting ways this year… watch this space. And the next time someone’s brave enough to be honest with you, make sure you’ve got their back.


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