Wednesday Webinar: Family learning in prisons

Home > Wednesday Webinar: Family learning in prisons

03 November 2022

In this webinar, we are joined by Prison Advice and Care Trust, Prison Reading Groups, National Literacy Trust, and The Reading Agency, to discuss family learning in prisons. The session is chaired by Jonathan Gilbert – PLA Steering Committee member and former prisoner – who reflects on the impact initiatives such as these had on him, and his family, while in prison.

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Relationships are fundamentally important if people are to change – Lord Farmer, 2017


Debbie Hornbuckle, Pact

Pact delivers family learning that develops prisoners’ parenting and relationship skills.

Many prisoners have never parented outside of prison. Their first experience of parenting is when they arrive in prison and their children come to visit. Family learning becomes important, because it’s a way of building bonds and ensuring that prisoners understand their roles and responsibilities as parents.

Pact’s suite of courses factors in:

  • The huge appetite for family learning
  • The diverse range of needs, and so the need to be flexible (i.e., age of children, access to children, family relationships)
  • The different experiences of fathers and mothers, and so the need for different provision (i.e., mothers losing children and identity as a mother when entering prison; complex relationships with kinship carers; the distance travelled to the women’s estate)
  • That not all parents tell their children that they’re in prison
  • That dynamics at home might change when a father goes into, and returns from, prison (i.e., a child stepping in as caretaker)

We’d like to see an understanding of the importance of family learning, and for it to be embedded into the next education contracts for prisons as a part of the core offer.


Sarah Turvey, Prison Reading Groups

The central aim of Prison Reading Groups is to connect families through books. Sarah outlined some of their initiatives:

  • Family Days – providing books and book bags at family visits
  • Reading children’s books on Radio Wanno at HMP Wandsworth, and inviting prisoners to request two copies – one for them, and one for their child – to read during phone calls or video visits
  • Encouraging – via Raising Readers – prisoners to choose a book and send a copy to a child in their family, with a handwritten bookplate message
  • Sending books to Mother and Baby Units, through First Books
  • Making it Up – workshops for prisoners to create illustrated story books to give to their children on family reading days
  • What Happens Next – workshops to help prisoners feel more confident about reading with their children

I’ve just had a phone call with a service user’s mum. She said that [her grandson] reads his book every night without fail, asking for the book that Daddy made for him. And that he keeps it in a safe place away from anyone else, saying that it is his special book. – Family Liaison


Rebecca Perry, National Literacy Trust

Rebecca introduced Readconnect, a three-year National Literacy Trust project at HMP Swaleside.

A men’s high security prison on the Isle of Sheppy in Kent, HMP Swaleside is quite an inaccessible prison. More than half of prisoners there are serving a sentence of ten years or more, and 52% have a child under the age of 18. The project aims to support the men – distanced from loved ones for a long time – to build and maintain strong bonds with their children and family members, through storytelling, reading, and literacy building activities.

Readconnect does this through in-person workshops; family day activities; in-cell resources; and digital content on Virtual Campus. Importantly, the prisoners at HMP Swaleside are involved in the design and content of the project.

This really helped me connect and strengthen family ties.


Emma Braithwaite, The Reading Agency

Emma spoke about The Reading Agency’s Family Reading Challenge pilot at HMP Oakwood and HMP Featherstone. The pilot combined the existing Reading Ahead programme for emergent adult readers, and the Summer Reading Challenge for 4-11-year-olds. Parents and children read together during visits and calls, completed bespoke resources during the challenge, and received rewards.

An independent evaluation of the pilot noted:

  • Increased engagement with reading amongst children and parents
  • Improved meaningful connections between parents and children (providing a shared focus, starting conversations, connecting families, and helping maintain phone conversations)
  • Encouraged peer-to-peer support
  • Enhanced participant-staff relationships

He didn’t know what do with his child during visits. His children were very young when he came into prison and so he didn’t always know what to say, but while actively engaging with the reading, he was able to drop in other indirect communication.

Young dads really liked it. Reading the children’s books without any judgement increased their confidence in their own reading. Some had problems with reading, and began reading the books themselves, not just with their children.


Jonathan Gilbert, PLA Steering Committee
Jonathan reflected on the programmes he, his wife Natalie, and his children participated in while in prison.

Without those benefits we wouldn’t have had the connection we had throughout my prison journey, and it would have been a lot more challenging when I returned home.

Referring to family literacy initiatives through which both parent and child have a copy of the same book, he spoke about what this meant to him, personally.

The mirroring of the books. I think that’s a great idea. I used to work out which books were in the visits’ hall. I’d borrow one, my wife would buy it, so Riley would be sitting on the bed with Natalie at 8 o’clock in the evening, and I’d be reading him the bedtime story, and it was just amazing. I really connected with him over that.

He noted how several of the presentations commented on how parents do not always tell their children that they are in prison, instead telling them that they are working away. He said that this is commonplace and unfortunately means that families miss out on the many and varied support programmes.

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