When Elsa’s mum, Janet, was jailed for 10-and-a-half months last year, her daughter’s life changed in an instant.
“Not having Mum there was the most awful thing,” says Elsa, now 15. “I felt like a huge part of my life was completely gone. Mum takes me to school, picks me up, takes me out, treats me. It’s not like my dad doesn’t do that, but it’s not the same relationship as you have with your mum.”
For Janet, one of the most painful aspects of her sentence was the knowledge that her children would have to visit her in jail.
“They’d never been anywhere like that and I thought I would be a huge embarrassment to them,” she says. Because Wales has no women’s prison, the journey to visit her would take an hour, across the border to Eastwood Park prison in Gloucestershire where all female prisoners from south Wales are sent. For some children in the west of Wales, it can be a six-hour round trip. On public transport, getting there and back in a day might be impossible.
“I was completely distraught,” says Elsa, remembering her reaction to the prospect of visiting a prison. “I thought it would be awful, really scary. Most terrifying to me was [not knowing] how she lived there. Where was she sleeping? Was she getting enough food?”
It’s these kind of fears that the Visiting Mum project aims to allay. Run by the Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact) and volunteering charity Sova, the project is funded by the Big Lottery Innovation Fund and helps children from south Wales visit their mothers at Eastwood Park, with the aim of reducing the emotional distress caused to children and their mothers by incarceration. Given that the relationship between mental health and offending is well known, another aim is to reduce reoffending when women are released.
In 2010, the Prison Reform Trust estimated that more than 17,240 children were separated from their mother through imprisonment. Despite the Welsh government’s adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is no national strategy in Wales for the children of prisoners, which means they receive little support. It’s hardly surprising: no data is routinely collected by local authorities about the children of prisoners in England or Wales, so nobody knows who they are.
Dr Alyson Rees of Cardiff University recently published an overwhelmingly positive evaluation of the Visiting Mum scheme. She says that while mothers are imprisoned, children often have to live with relatives or friends and so may be in a different geographical area and have to move schools.
“It’s a stigmatising thing to have a mother in prison,” says Rees. Only an adult can book a visit and as relationships between mothers and carers can become strained, this isn’t always as simple as it may seem. For children, the barriers to contact with a mother serving a custodial sentence can be very high.
As well as solving some of the practical problems facing families by providing a volunteer to drive children, the Visiting Mum scheme also helps children explore their concerns about the prison environment. If the family wishes, their dedicated volunteer will spend time explaining what to expect as children go through security and will show pictures of the scenes they’ll encounter. Eastwood Park’s governor agreed thatspecial visiting arrangements could be made each month for children seeing their mothers.
“On an ‘ordinary’ visit, which is just an hour, there can be 30 families in a room,” explains Sova volunteer Lynda Camilleri. “It’s noisy. The mum isn’t allowed to leave her chair, but children don’t want to sit down and chat because they’re kids, and there’s nothing the mum can do. She can’t go and paint or play with them, she can’t make a cup of tea or food for them. It’s important for kids to see their mum being a mum, but that can’t happen.”
Under the Visiting Mum scheme, instead of several guards patrolling a packed visiting hall, there’s just one – the entire hall is given over to the family.
“We set up the room. There’s a play area and we’ll do arts and crafts, games, [put out] breakfast things – brioche and croissants and tea and coffee. Mum can move around,” says Charlotte Parsons, families engagement manager for Pact at Eastwood Park.
Camilleri, who has accompanied one set of children who hadn’t seen their mother for a whole year, says that having two full hours of quality time means that the vital parent-child bond, that could have been badly damaged, has a far better chance of being sustained through the mother’s sentence. “Even little things like taking a toddler to the toilet, she can do: that’s just not allowed on a normal visit.”
For Elsa, who experienced ordinary visits too, the difference was stark. “There would be loads of other people there, it would be loud, and it was horrible to see her in a way that we had to do stuff for her, like make a cup of tea,” she explains. “We could sit next to her, hold her hand, but we weren’t allowed to go too close. With the [Visiting Mum] visits, which were so much more free, I could give her a hug whenever I wanted. It was lovely.”
The scheme has been running for three years, and 167 children have been able to see their mother in a family friendly way because of it. Mothers who would have lost their relationship with their children have been able to nurture that bond.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons praised the scheme as “excellent”in its inspection last year. It costs £168,000 a year to run, covering two full-time workers, who carry out casework and parenting-relationship programmes, and a volunteer co-ordinator. Pact also produces information packs for teachers and social workers and runs events for professionals. But the funding has finished and no more has yet been found.
“I’m sad,” says Parsons. “Today we had a lady [arrive] from Caerphilly. She wants to see her children and it would have been brilliant, but we’re not taking new referrals.”
The impact of the scheme is obvious in the way Elsa recalls what two hours of private family time meant to her while her mum was in prison.
“I really, really needed her. And this project helped me feel as if she was actually there for me. I had more phone calls with her and I felt safe, which I was really happy about. I don’t think, if it had been just normal visits, that I’d have felt that safe. And she wasn’t treated like a prisoner, but like a human being.”
*Some names have been changed
Source: The Guardian