Children of prisoners: Forgotten, invisible, and HE needs to act

Wednesday 20 September 2023, Widening access and participation

by Pippa Blythe, Widening Participation Project Coordinator, University of Cambridge

Children of prisoners: Forgotten, invisible, and HE needs to act

Students with imprisoned parents are a disadvantaged group who need support throughout their educational journey in order to thrive and be supported to progress on to higher education.
Pippa Blythe, Widening Participation Project Coordinator, University of Cambridge

At the University of Cambridge, we have added children of prisoners (students with imprisoned parents) to the list of characteristics we prioritise for widening participation programmes. I am calling for other providers to follow suit and consider being a child of a prisoner as a key piece of contextual information in the application process. 

How many are there in the UK?

There are an estimated 312,000 children of prisoners in the UK. We have no systematic way of identifying them. When a parent is sentenced there is no mechanism for the local authority to be notified if they have children or even accurate records of if a prisoner has children.

What does current research tell us about this group?

Being a child of a prisoner is shown to correlate with compounding of disadvantage. In a 2018 paper, Turney discusses how becoming a child of a prisoner is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) but also that children of prisoners are more likely to be exposed to other ACEs than children whose parents are not incarcerated. This is still the case even accounting for socioeconomic and demographic factors. Murray and Murray stated parental incarceration can: 'cause economic strain, reduced supervision, stigma, home and school moves, and other negative life events for children' and highlight how prisoners and therefore their children are 'much more likely than the general population to have lived in severe social and economic disadvantage'.

According to much research from the UK and abroad, the experiences of children of prisoners in school is not a positive one. In a US study, it was found that nearly one quarter of children with an imprisoned parent drop out of school. Children of prisoners are likely to experience stigmatisation, bullying, and teasing by their peers at school which might increase 'problem behaviour' and negatively impact their mental health and ability to thrive at school.

Farrington suggests official bodies, such as the police, might be biased to and pay more attention to prisoners’ families. This connects to labelling theory, which suggests people will behave according to the label society attaches to them. In interviews with 127 caregivers of children with imprisoned fathers, Boswell and Wedge found that some children 'got verbal abuse from other children... The pressure was so great that the children didn’t want to go to school'.

Supporting children of prisoners to participate in higher education may also have positive impacts on offending rates, as offending is often intergenerational. Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) longitudinal cohort study of prisoners found that 37% of prisoners said a member of their family had been found guilty of a non-motoring offence. Other studies suggest between a third and a half of prisoners have family members with a criminal conviction. 

The Prisoner Learning Alliance reported that 47% of prisoners have no formal qualifications when they enter custody and the Ministry of Justice reports that 57% of adult prisoners have literacy levels below that expected of an 11 year old. The SPCR study also found that 63% of prisoners had been temporarily excluded and 42% had been permanently excluded from school.

People with higher levels of education are less likely to offend. Given that children of prisoners are at a higher risk of offending, it is key they are supported throughout their educational journey and into higher education, or other training and employment opportunities aligning with their individual goals.

What can we do as a sector?

  • Acknowledge children of prisoners. Simply acknowledging they are a disadvantaged group is a huge step forward, and a move towards greater visibility. Add them as a tick box on your own enrolment forms so students have the option to disclose if they are a child of a prisoner. You can use this information contextually when considering their application to widening participation programmes or to study with you.
  • Join me in asking UCAS to add the question 'Do you have a parent or carer who is currently imprisoned or has been imprisoned in the past?'. UCAS has acknowledged my request (on behalf of the University of Cambridge) for this question to be added, but for UCAS to ask applicants to share this information, there needs to be visible support for these students in more HE providers across the UK. Join us in acknowledging that knowing if an applicant is the child of a prisoner is important contextual information for your provider.
  • Join my working group about supporting children of prisoners in HE. I’d be glad to hear from anyone who has an interest in talking about children of prisoners and the positive change we can make for them in HE. My contact details are Pippa Blythe I’d love to hear from you.