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The true story is that children are victims of their parents' imprisonment

SHARON BERRY tells Claire Brine why she helps parents in prison record stories for their children

One day their parent is there, the next day they are gone. Children don’t understand why

WORKING as a volunteer in HMP Dartmoor, Sharon Berry discovered that imprisoned fathers were finding it difficult to keep in regular contact with their children. So, in 2002, she and a colleague developed Storybook Dads, a charity that enables prisoner parents to read bedtime stories to their children by recording them on a CD. Today, the scheme incorporates Storybook Mums and operates in more than 80 men’s and women’s prisons across the UK, producing 5,000 recordings a year.

‘Each CD we make is personalised for that particular child,’ explains Sharon. ‘So, for example, a prisoner parent will introduce the bedtime story by saying: “Hello Suzie, this is Daddy here and I’m going to read you The Gruffalo.” Then they record the story, before leaving a goodbye message at the end. It’s a simple idea but effective.’

Once the prisoner has read their story, the recording is sent to HMP Channings Wood, where 18 prisoners are employed by Storybook Dads as audio editors. It’s their full-time job to delete any mistakes, add some sound effects and ensure the quality of the recording.

‘We started off by making just CDs, but now we have a dozen prisons recording DVDs as well,’ says Sharon. ‘Prisoners can record their story in front of a camera while sitting next to a puppet who interacts with them.’

A quick look at the Storybook Dads website reveals that each year more than 200,000 children across the UK are affected by parental imprisonment. Sharon describes them as ‘hidden victims’.

‘One day their parent is there, the next day they are gone,’ she says. ‘And often children don’t understand why. Mummy or Daddy has just disappeared and they miss them. Sometimes, they don’t feel loved any more or they feel isolated and lonely. Some children struggle to sleep at night because they are worried about their parent.

‘When children get older, there are other problems. Usually, they don’t want to tell anyone that their parent is in prison. They feel ashamed of them. Some become more troublesome at school. Children with imprisoned parents are also more likely to suffer mental health problems.’

Although children are able to maintain contact with their parents through visits or by phone, it’s not easy.

‘A prisoner may be sent far away, so travelling is expensive or difficult to manage with young children,’ Sharon explains. ‘We have prisoners in Channings Wood in Devon whose families are in Manchester. The visits themselves are awkward. Children have to be searched before they can enter the visitors’ room. Their parent has to stay sitting down at a table. They can’t get up to play with their child.

I know of one little girl who thought her daddy couldn’t walk because she never saw him standing up.’

While Sharon understands that prisons need to establish rules, she feels sad for the many children who suffer the consequences of their parent’s actions. Even if a prisoner tries to maintain regular contact with their child by phoning home between visits, calls are expensive and can be made only at certain times of the day – which might not be

convenient for the family.

‘When a parent goes to prison, a child might go from seeing them every day to two hours a month or less,’ Sharon says. ‘As a result, relationships can break down. At Storybook Dads, we try to keep the family unit strong. If a prisoner has a family to go back to on their release, they are less likely to reoffend.

‘The prisoners who record stories with us say that it helps them to stay connected to their children. They are able to contribute in some small way to their family. As for the children, they get to hear their parent’s voice. Some mums have told us that their child sleeps better when they can hear their dad on a CD before they go to bed. One little girl took her CD to school because she wanted to show it to all her friends. She came back and asked her dad to record a sequel.’

While figures show that 50 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their families, Sharon says that, with a bit of effort, it is possible to maintain healthy relationships. So far, her model of Storybook Dads has spread across Europe, Australia and Japan – and it’s easy to see why.

‘A prisoner making a CD recording of a story for their child is such a simple idea,’ she says. ‘It benefits the child. It benefits the prisoner. It benefits the other parent. If it can play a small part in helping to reduce prisoner reoffending, then it benefits society as well.’ 

Next week: the struggle to find work after a conviction 

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