Brought together through reading

A selection of children's books

We know the pandemic’s impact on the wellbeing and mental health of children is yet to be fully understood. However, it’s clear that for children who were already facing the enormous challenges and struggles that come from having a parent in prison, COVID-19 restrictions have been particularly devastating. 

Staff at HMP Polmont Visitors Centre have been working tirelessly to find creative, safe and meaningful ways to support children to maintain and strengthen their relationships with a parent that is in prison. Give a Book, a charity that seeks to encourage and promote the joy of reading especially within prisons and amongst disadvantaged children, were contacted by Sasha Groves, service manager. The charity sent 14 pairs of books aimed at the pre-school age group and, following security protocols and COVID 19 restrictions, the books were kept by Family Contact Officers in the prison with the partner book being sent to the family.

One mum in prison said ‘I absolutely love reading with him on the Video Call, it’s something different to do’.

Prior to lockdown, separate parental visits made it easier for inmates to sit together with their child and read from their “special book”, sharing quality time together. Staff had wanted reading together to be fun and not daunting, so also introduced illustrated books that proved a great introduction for the parent and child to freely exchange thoughts, ideas and flights of imagination. 

“Virtual visits are here to stay and in some cases they have been a lifesaver in maintaining relationships and overcoming physical distance barriers.” – Sasha Groves, service manager

Not all plain sailing

The issues of physical distancing may have been overcome with virtual visits, but they proved to highlight a new set of barriers to reading. For some people in custody the concept of reading a book out loud to a child heightened their own insecurities and lack of confidence in reading. Not having grown up with books in the house or having stories read to them as a child made the activity seem alien. In addition, reading in the presence of others during visiting times lead to embarrassment and possible mocking and teasing. This created a lot of resistance. 

So while 'Give a Book' has been fantastic, and will continue with virtual visits and in person visits when restrictions allow, staff at the Visitors Centre are looking to break down barriers for strengthening relationships between parents and children even further.  One way they have found to do this is through another charity, Storybook Dads, that makes recordings of parents reading books and sends a CD of the recording to the child.

The Visitors Centre are now looking to source funding that will help with the initial set up costs, to be able to make recordings of parents reading for their children, which they feel will be priceless in the relationships it will help to foster between parents in custody and their children.

Further reading: “Family Literacy in prisons: fathers’ engagements with their young children”

(Cathy Nutbrown, Peter Clough, Lynsey Stammers, Nadia Emblin & Summer Alston-Smith (2019) ‘Family literacy in prisons: fathers’ engagement with their young children’, Research Papers in Education, 34:2, 169-191, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2017.1402085)

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