When dad and prison officer Nick Howard was asked if he’d like to do some detailed work around the impact of prison on children, he jumped at the chance, writes FIONA SCOTT.

Little did the 48-year-old custody manager know that being seconded to work with children’s charity Barnardo’s would also have a significant personal impact on him and his attitude to his career of 26 years.

“This last year has been an emotional rollercoaster for me,” he said.

“When I’m in the prison, it’s my normal day job and I’m used to catering for the needs of the offenders in custody.

"Now I’ve realised that many of these offenders are fathers, with families out there, families who are often struggling to deal with the fact that a parent or guardian is in custody. They are doing a hidden sentence.”

Nick has worked at HMP Erlestoke, near Devizes, for several years and is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the prison when on duty.

When off duty, he’s married to Tracey and lives in Westbury with their two sons, one aged 16 and the other aged 21.

In April last year, he became the first custody manager in the UK prison service to be seconded to a children’s charity to look at ways in which the prison can become more family friendly.

Prison governor Andy Rogers is supportive of the work of Barnardo’s and sees Erlestoke as needing to reach out more to families and to the local community. It was he who asked Nick to take on the secondment.

It seems an odd combination to think of a place of incarceration as being family friendly, but Nick firmly believes this concept has to be embraced in the long term.

“Children and families often become isolated and stigmatised when a parent is in custody. At any one time seven per cent of children nationally will be affected by this situation. That’s between 200,000 and 236,000 children,” he said.

“If we can make HMP Erlestoke more family orientated, it might help offenders in their rehabilitation, make them realise what they are missing, Christmas, birthdays, a child’s first steps, first words and perhaps go some way towards preventing intergenerational offending.”

Statistics show that six out of ten boys who have fathers in prison will go on to receive a prison sentence themselves.

However, research suggests that interacting with families during a sentence can reduce the likelihood of a prisoner going on to commit further crimes after his release.

Nick has a number of projects on the go. One is Fathers’ Play Days where dads get to spend a whole day doing activities with their children on site. Four of these days were put on last year and more will be organised in 2014. Prisoners have to apply to be considered for the event.

“Just to see the pleasure on the faces of children being able to spend that time with their fathers is amazing,” said Nick.

“For some offenders, it may be the first time they’ve really spent quality time with that child. Before the day, they are given the opportunity to make a small handmade gift which they give to their child at the end of the day.

“The feedback we have got from offenders has been that the most difficult part of the day is saying goodbye.”

However, it’s the Prison Champions’ project which Nick hopes will have a lasting legacy from 2014.

The idea came about last year, when Nick attended a nursery in Bristol where staff were trained to support families and very young children cope with the impact of prison.

“It seemed to me that it was such a fantastic initiative and I felt this could be developed in Wiltshire.

“I hadn’t really recognised the impact that imprisonment can have on children.

"In Bristol, there was one mum who was spending all of her money on supporting her husband in prison with clothes, spending money and the cost of attending visits – then at home having to go to a foodbank to feed the children. This was her coping strategy for keeping her family together.

“When you see that human element, when you interact with a child who has a father in custody, you realise that it can really adversely affect the development of that child.”

Armed with this knowledge, he approached several Wiltshire primary schools with the idea of each nominating a prison champion – someone within the educational setting who can support families and children affected by prison.

“I looked at primary schools first as children tend to start to show criminal tendencies and traits around the age of eight," he said.

"So I initially wrote to Wiltshire Council about it. This led to a meeting with the county’s Primary Heads Forum and now we have our first school champion about to start her training.”

That champion is Sarah Beveridge from Dilton Marsh Primary School, near Westbury.

Headteacher Judith Finney is very supportive of the project.

She said: “Schools grow the adults of the future. For us to do a great job, we need to meet the needs of all children at all times.

"There must be no barriers to our children learning to their maximum potential and there must be no barriers to our children being emotionally secure.

"We’re very keen to add another dimension to our children’s pastoral and emotional care which in turn will promote high standards of academic achievement.”

Nick said: “Some schools may be reluctant at first to come forward. They may think this isn’t an issue for them. But some families try to hide the fact that a parent is in prison.

"We may not even know that offenders are fathers – they don’t have to tell us that information. We need reduce the stigma for those ‘hidden’ children.

“It’s so brave of Dilton Marsh Primary Schoool to do this and that will hopefully encourage other schools to take the same course of action.”

The Prison Champions’ scheme is open to all schools in Wiltshire, and those individuals who are nominated will be given training at HMP Erlestoke.

This will include visiting the prison. There will also be training on the offender’s journey from court to prison as well as how offenders are managed during their sentence.

Nick said: “I want to make people socially aware that having a parent in custody is more common than people think. I wanted to do something to allow those children to have a voice and not to be forgotten.

“Our school champions will be a safe person to talk to about this issue and that person can signpost families to other organisations if they need further help.”