Sussex Prisoners’ Families (SPF) is a community interest company which supports local families to cope emotionally and practically with the imprisonment of a loved-one. Their application to ShareLab detailed how isolated and disempowered families can benefit emotionally from connecting with each other and sharing their experiences - with a consequent benefit to the health and wellbeing of parents, partners and children.
We chose to award SPF a grant to see if taking their tried and tested approach online could enable a very small organisation to scale the reach they have and support significantly more families safely and effectively. We were also interested in how they could relieve pressure on the system by supplementing the information on the Ministry of Justice website with more timely, relevant and personalised user-generated information.
Here Sam Hart, SPF’s Communications Director, shares the story of the work they’ve done so far and the impact the new forum has had on the families involved.
Around 200,000 children have a parent sent to prison each year which is more than those affected by divorce. These children are 2-3 times more likely to suffer mental health problems than their peers, which goes on to affect all areas of their lives, including schooling. As well as the loss of a loved one and the trauma of separation, families face financial hardship, insecure housing and isolation from the community. Stigma around imprisonment makes it difficult for families to ask for help meaning that the true scale of the issue is unknown. Moreover, boys with a father in prison are more likely to become offenders themselves.
Since 2013, Sussex Prisoners’ Families (SPF) have been running a support group in the community to support those affected by the trauma of having a loved-one in prison. A core group of committed families meet regularly to help each other through the hard times, offering practical advice and emotional support. While these groups have been well-received, we know we have only been reaching a fraction of the thousands of people in the county who have been struggling with the imprisonment of a loved-one.
We wanted to harness the empathy and expertise of the families who already meet face-to-face and to foster the support we have seen them give each other to develop a digital support platform. From running our groups, we have seen how families can support each other and the real friendships that emerge from this. We hoped that the forum would allow us to expand these relationships and create an online version of this supportive community.
We wanted to connect those who are going through or have gone through traumatic times as a result of the criminal justice system. In the past few years it is slowly being acknowledged how family relationships being maintained can reduce reoffending. What SPF has seen is how families of offenders are often ignored, pushed aside and isolated, despite not having done anything wrong themselves. We are working towards removing this stigma and helping people manage their day to day lives even when their worlds have been turned upside down.
The forum is now up and running and provides a space for people’s voices to be heard and an understanding that there are people out there who know how they feel and are willing to listen to what they are going through. The prison system can be unpredictable which often means families and friends can adjust to one situation to then be told they need to learn a whole new regime (for example, inmates can be moved to a new prison across the country with very little notice). The families we work with are often navigating a system that seems baffling. Our forum is utilising people’s lived experience to help provide solutions to these complex problems.
It has been challenging to understand the specific needs of families – we have worked with them throughout the process but trying to manage technological expectation with the ambition and wants of families has been difficult. For example, some families wanted a profile page which this platform wouldn’t allow. These challenges have proved to be good for us as they have made SPF more innovative and our understanding of the diverse needs of various groups has improved.
As a small organisation with few resources and limited technological expertise, the journey has not been easy. Previous attempts to set up online chat rooms ended in failure because we hadn’t anticipated the levels of marketing and monitoring required. Even with the support of Nesta it still has not been easy. We quickly discovered that we needed expert technical advice early on to help us navigate this complex and unfamiliar world. We also needed help in managing how to turn the reality of a support group into a technical platform. This was beyond our experience so we recruited Creative Bloom, a digital marketing agency who have helped us piece together our aspirations for family support with the online possibilities. They helped us sift through the variety of platforms on offer and we eventually chose Discourse as it seemed to offer the flexibility we needed as well as being relatively easy to use for ‘non-techies’.
Once we had chosen the platform, Creative Bloom also helped us handpick the plugins which suited the work we are doing. For example, families wanted to be able to message each other directly, similar to how they interact on the Whatsapp group that some of them have. Discourse allowed them to do this but only once they had reached a certain ‘trusted user level’. This ‘trusted user level‘ element of Discourse also enabled us to implement a community moderation model which was inline with our principles of empowering families.
In retrospect, we probably spent too much time trying to perfect the platform before sharing it with others. We have learnt that there is an element of ‘suck it and see’ to creating an online platform. The live feedback from families along with the technical support of Creative Bloom meant that we could amend and adjust the forum to the needs and wants of our user group.
It has been easy getting families involved – they have such a desire to help others going through the same things as them that they have been very keen to help and share their experiences. We would recommend that all organisations embarking on a similar project get input from their stakeholders from the outset. For us, their experience and advice was invaluable.
We had a core group of 10 family members involved in the consultation, of which 8 signed up to the pilot. They have been involved in the initial design and content of the forum. As the forum progressed they were able to give us useful feedback on technical glitches around signing in as well as how they felt about the format. This led to us making a number of changes, including making the landing page more focused on solutions and support rather than difficulties and problems.
All of these initial families are still active on the forum and four have been invited to be moderators and are currently awaiting training.
"The forum makes me feel less alone."Praise for the forum
We have been piloting the forum with the family members who have helped and have wanted to be involved. This means that we have people talking to each other, sharing their experiences, asking questions and supporting one another when things change or they’re struggling. It has become clear that having a space where people can be honest and open about how they feel is not something families and friends are used to – some families have told us that this space has given them the opportunity to be open about their experiences for the first time. It has also connected us with family members as we can easily communicate with them about upcoming events and check on how they are doing.
In terms of marketing the forum, we have developed some wallet sized cards with the details of how to join the forum. These are handed out routinely at HMP Lewes where trained volunteers explain the benefits of the forum to families. We plan to hand out the cards at Sussex courts to families needing support. We also promote the forum on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging professionals to share the service with families they may interact with. We have videoed families telling their stories which we plan to share in order to promote the forum and to make it more relevant and accessible.
We are trying to reach as many families as possible, we have worked hard to make the joining process as quick and seamless as possible. We need help in reaching more families. This would be a case of signposting them to our website where they can then join the conversation. If you would like to get involved, please do get in contact: [email protected]