Parental Incarceration: The Role of the School

Francis Ssuubi,
Founder of Wells of Hope Ministries, a charity that provides education and general welfare to children with incarcerated parents in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania

Top Photo: The Head Teacher of Wells of Hope School accompanying children visiting their parents in prison.

Parental incarceration is a stressful and traumatic event for children and can negatively affect their education, health, and social relationships. Children with parents who have been incarcerated are at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves.

The school environment may be a safe haven for children and can be a place where they are more willing to express their feelings. As such, the school can play a vital role in supporting children who are affected by parental incarceration. Unfortunately, a school can also be a place where the children face more harm. The rising number of parents going to prison creates a big challenge for school systems, which may not be aware of the children’s circumstances and are ill-prepared to help them.

Wells of Hope School in Uganda is a school for children with incarcerated parents, probably the only school in the world designed to provide free education and general welfare support specifically to children with incarcerated parents. All the children at this school would not have had an opportunity to get an education if they had not come to Wells of Hope.

The Wells of Hope School is also a global center for study on the impact of incarceration on children and the role of schools in helping these children. Over the years, we have learned a lot about children with incarcerated parents and our experience has shown us the clear impact of parental incarceration on the children’s chances of succeeding in school.

We cannot say that just putting a child with an incarcerated parent into a classroom is sufficient on its own; we cannot assume the child is learning simply because he/she is looking at the blackboard. We need to be mindful of what is going on in a child’s mind while he/she is in class and we need to be aware of the child's likely responses to his/her parent’s imprisonment.

We believe a school can be a community that is supportive of children with incarcerated parents if teachers can come to understand in a comprehensive way the impact of parental incarceration on children. Teachers need to be made aware that incarceration is an issue that has ramifications inside their classrooms.

While we do not know the exact number of children with incarcerated parents, we do know the number of people in prison and so we should recognize that a significant number of children have parents in the prison system. This will help to bring these children out of obscurity so that they are able to enjoy their human rights.

Educators need to understand that these children suffer unbearable trauma and stress, which often affects their physiological and emotional responses; their ability to think, learn, and concentrate; and their impulse control, self-esteem, and how they relate with others.

The teachers at Wells of Hope Schools note that some of the children are often absentminded during class. This helps me to inform others that children who cannot concentrate in class do not benefit from the education they are offered and if teachers are not knowledgeable about the impact of parental incarceration on children’s learning abilities, the children would be punished for being inattentive in class or for failure to do their class assignments on time.

What Schools Can Do

While carrying out a sensitization seminar for teachers at one of the top schools in Uganda, I heard the story of one teacher who was teaching her class about the death penalty in Uganda. One of the students asked her what happens to people on death row, and the teacher explained that people on death row are supposed to be hanged. She did not know that one of the students in her class had a father on death row; upon hearing what the teacher said, the student with a father on death row collapsed and was taken to hospital.

One 17-year-old girl told me that her father was violently arrested and taken to the police station; when she went to school the following day, her teacher asked her before the whole classroom what had happened to her father and mentioned that he had seen him being arrested and taken to jail. The girl said that she could not go to school for two weeks because she could not stand the embarrassment. So teachers should be sensitive in class while talking about current events, particularly concerning crime or the police; they should be mindful of how children with a parent who has been arrested or incarcerated may feel. The school administration should have systems in place to ensure that children of incarcerated parents are not bullied by peers, and help to ensure that they are not subjected to any kind of stereotyping or bias.

In 2016, Wells of Hope carried out a survey in Kenya and Tanzania and discovered that children with imprisoned parents in Kenya and Tanzania often drop out of school due to lack of school fees and school supplies, such as books, pencils, and school uniforms. Therefore, in 2017, we started helping children with incarcerated parents in those countries by providing school fees and school supplies. In most poor countries, there are no support systems to help children with incarcerated parents go to school. Schools can help to provide bursaries or can connect and collaborate with charities that can offer tuition fees or scholarships to children with incarcerated parents.

Teachers can collaborate with children’s caregivers to create a positive school environment. They can share information about the children’s well-being and any available services that can benefit these children. Schools also can help inform governments about the needs of these children and call for intervention, so that children with incarcerated parents can be catered for in the government's plan for vulnerable children.

At Wells of Hope School, Uganda, we facilitate children’s visits to their parents in prison. During these visits, the children’s teachers and our social workers accompany the children on visits to their parents. While inside the prison, the teachers and social workers are able to discuss the children’s academic performance and discipline with the parents and the children seated together. We have observed over the years that the children are more relaxed, lively, and interested in their studies after these visits. Facilitating prison visits in this style is helping the children to achieve academic and social success.

Schools can help children with incarcerated parents by encouraging and facilitating ongoing contact between children and incarcerated parents through regular prison visitations, letter writing, and other forms of communication. Schools can inform children and their caregivers about prison visit times and can facilitate the visits and accompany the children and their caregivers during the prison visits.

Wells of Hope Photo: The Head Teacher of Wells of Hope School with a parent in prison, discussing the academics of his daughter.

Wells of Hope Photo: The Head Teacher of Wells of Hope School with a parent in prison, discussing the academics of his daughter.

Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to exhibit tardiness, absenteeism, and poor grades. Teachers can collaborate with others to help children attend class and offer them the support they need to better their grades.

In some parts of Uganda, children with incarcerated parents are being used to work as scarecrows to guard crops against birds and animals during class time; thus, they miss class and eventually drop out. We believe that schools can work in liaison with caregivers and the local authorities, especially in upcountry or under-privileged areas, to ensure the children attend school.

The children often face other difficulties, such as malnutrition and hunger, which affects their health, classroom attendance, and academic performance. Teachers can provide a link to organizations or groups that can provide food to these children, so that they can attend class and get good grades.

Teachers can advocate for these children and educate their peers on ways to deal with the peculiar needs of children who have an incarcerated parent. Teachers can establish themselves as caring adults in whom the children can confide, and they can offer to mentor these children. Schools can designate a staff member to act as a contact person with whom both the children and their caregivers can talk about any issue related to their imprisoned parents and any challenges and successes they are experiencing at school.

A child with an incarcerated parent is affected differently at each stage of the parent's incarceration, and thus needs different kinds of support at each stage. Schools can play a major role in helping these children at every stage of the parent’s imprisonment, from the time of arrest, through pre-trial to sentencing, during imprisonment, and after imprisonment.

Teacher training schools should include the skills and knowledge in their curriculum and trainings that equip teachers to offer holistic and comprehensive support to children affected by parental incarceration. Research should be done to help establish appropriate policies and methods for handling these children in the school system.

Schools stand at the center of all stakeholders who can help children affected by parental incarceration; these include parents in prison, the caregivers, the community, the prison, social support agencies, and the government. Working with all the stakeholders is important to build collaborative efforts to establish holistic interventions that improve the chances of children affected by parental imprisonment to survive and thrive.