Families claim ‘it’s our sentence too’ as Sussex charity extends support for prisoners’ families during Covid-19 pandemic

High Sheriff of West Sussex Dr Tim Fooks, in his weekly briefing, learns about the challenges experienced by families with a relative in prison and the Sussex charity that is working to support them.
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As both a High Sheriff and a GP, I have become very aware of the burden that crime places on both the victims of crime but also upon the families of those who are convicted and receive a custodial sentence.

Between 4,000 to 5,000 people across the whole of Sussex have a family member in prison. Around 2,500 of these are children separated from their mother or father and there is evidence that these children are more likely to experience a sense of isolation and low self-esteem as a result. Indeed, children with a parent in prison are two to three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than their peers.

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It has therefore been a pleasure to speak to Denis Byrne, who established Sussex Prisoners’ Families with Sam Hart and Rachelle Gold in 2013 to help families with imprisoned relatives, and to learn how they are reshaping their services to support these children and families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sussex Prisoners’ Families directors Rachelle Gold and Denis Byrne with volunteers Sarah and Naomi celebrating an award from the National Lottery Community FundSussex Prisoners’ Families directors Rachelle Gold and Denis Byrne with volunteers Sarah and Naomi celebrating an award from the National Lottery Community Fund
Sussex Prisoners’ Families directors Rachelle Gold and Denis Byrne with volunteers Sarah and Naomi celebrating an award from the National Lottery Community Fund

The establishment of lockdown in March created uniquely complex difficulties for families of prisoners. They have been unable to see their loved-ones in court and, after sentencing, they have often been plunged into a world of uncertainty without the most basic information such as which prison their loved one has been taken to. They may be extremely anxious about the wellbeing of the prisoner, facing stigma and social isolation with added financial or housing difficulties. Visits to prison have become and remain restricted, making it difficult to stay connected to loved-ones, and children are missing out on contact with their parents.

Thankfully, Sussex Prisoners’ Families has developed its offer to support families whose partners or loved ones are currently in prison. It has expanded its First Stop telephone helpline on 01273 499843 with a new outreach support service, providing one-to-one advice, support or simply just someone to talk to in a safe, confidential and non-judgemental manner, as well as online support groups.

Their website www.sussexprisonersfamilies.org.uk includes a forum chat room where families can talk to others in a similar position and practical information about visiting prison, telling the children and lots more.

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Director Sam Hart says: “As the problems related by Covid continue, it is more vital than ever that these families are given the help they need. Although limited opportunities for families and friends of defendants to attend hearings will remain for the foreseeable future, we are now able to help families navigate their journey through the criminal justice system and help alleviate the anxiety and isolation many experience.”

Sussex Prisoners’ Families leaflets are available in courtSussex Prisoners’ Families leaflets are available in court
Sussex Prisoners’ Families leaflets are available in court

One parent of a prisoner says the service offered her a lifeline after her son was sent to prison: “It’s like having a death in the family but with no funeral, and the system is like the Bermuda Triangle. Being able to speak to someone, who helped us contact and visit the prison, put our mind at rest.”

Another family member said: “I felt really overwhelmed with it all until Sussex Prisoners Families intervened. I cannot express how much it helps and how brilliant they are and I found the support really helpful as it has made me feel that I am not alone.”

Sussex Prisoners’ Families fulfils a critically important role in supporting these vulnerable families and, in particular, helping children to be protected from the stigma of crime in their own lives.

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In 2020, the Tudor Trust has provided a grant of £115,000 and the National Lottery has awarded the organisation £337,574 to reach out and support defendants and prisoners’ families in Sussex over the next five years.

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