Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice



Philippa Breffitt (HMP Thameside)

COMMENDEE 2014-15: Philippa earns a Commendation for transforming HMP Thameside’s child and family services, developing an ever-growing range of interventions aimed at maintaining and enhancing family relationships.

PhilippaBreffittPhilippa Breffitt is the Family Interventions Manager at HMP Thameside where she has consistently developed a long and impressive list of innovative child- and family-centred interventions designed to enhance family life and, ultimately, reduce reoffending.

As Sarah Chambers, Senior Manager Governance at HMP Thameside Business Services, notes, “Philippa’s relationship with the families in her care is truly inspirational and the impact she has on their lives cannot be overstated.”

The range and depth of her approach is cumulatively inspiring, ranging from the apparently simple (but easily overlooked), such as arranging for a member of staff to take photos of prisoners with their children as a reminder of a special time, to the unsung work involved in extending Family Days to the point that they are now held monthly.

Philippa, whose dedication to child welfare and well-being is evident across the full range of her activities, also takes a leading role in working with the local council’s Safeguarding Team and social services. Her impact here has contributed to staff having what’s described as “almost a sixth sense” in identifying signs of any neglect or abuse.

It’s clear, too, that Philippa takes particularly pride in providing a service which displays the caring side of the custodial environment which, as Sarah notes, “so often gets overlooked in the media.”

John Biggin OBE, Director at Thameside, and no slouch himself – he was voted Guardian Public Servant of the Year in 2010 – is unstinting in his praise. “Philippa is one of those individuals who is such a find,” he says, “able to transform a service that many prisons find just too hard to do.” John is particularly impressed at Philippa’s inspirational “vision for what a profound impact children and the establishment of strong family bonds can have on the young men passing through the prison.”

John adds that Philippa “lives and breathes” the values underpinning her work, and that “Philippa is incredibly close to the families going through her programmes and it is often this personal touch which really makes the difference.” Her rapport with the partners and children of the prisoners, he says, is without parallel.”

Among many examples of developing new services in support of family work, Philippa’s work has delivered toddler times, dedicated ‘baby bonding’ visits (with Community Health Visitors giving advice and guidance), ‘Story Book Dads’ in which fathers record and film a story, using puppets, which is then put onto a DVD to send to their children – described as “a comfort to the children who would normally miss out on the valuable father/child story time.”

One poignant initiative that Philippa has pioneered, unique to HMP Thameside, involves “final contacts & life story work” when children are going to be adopted. At every point – from babies to toddlers, from school work to adoption – Philippa is deeply engaged in the ethos that the likelihood of reoffending is lowered if family ties are maintained. This is reflected throughout her work, says one colleague, in her “vision, innovation, commitment, enthusiasm and outstanding dedication.”

Looking ahead, Philippa has a range of new initiatives to deliver when alterations in the visits hall are completed. These include: Positive parenting with prisoners and their partners; Building relationships through play; Weaning, nutrition and your young child; Cooking with the kids and Play at home with your child. Philippa is also keen to breathe children’s voices and opinions into the processes affecting them, through a Prisoner Children’s Forum, additionally wants to deliver childcare qualifications, and intends to prioritise language translations of the Families First information.

With thirty years experience in various child protection settings, there’s clearly no stopping Philippa’s ongoing passion to keep doing more to make the vital difference for these often vulnerable families.


[Philippa Breffit gives her account of the work for which she won her Commendation]

Maintaining relationships when a father is in prison presents a real challenge. I have developed a range of activities based on the prisoner’s needs which enables them to re-establish or maintain family ties with their children and families.

My main focus was to develop a varied timetable to incorporate the needs and cultural backgrounds of all the families, it was also important to create a friendly bright environment where children could have a positive experience. It was hard to see any further than this at this point as I had not worked in a prison before and just hoped that the skills I had developed over 32 years in children’s social care could transfer to the prison setting.

In February 2012 I arrived I was offered a hard hat and boots and shown to the social visits hall by the Director of the prison. He pointed me in the direction of the children’s play area he told me we open in six weeks you will need to kit the area out for children to visit and so the adventure started. After numerous meetings regarding risk assessments and how it was all going to work we opened for visits on the 30th March 2012. It was certainly an exhausting time but exiting as well. The children and their families gave nothing but compliments about the play area but not all staff where as confident as in most prisons “soft play” adorned the play areas and there was none of this to be seen only lots of toys and messy activities. There was a lot of shaking of heads but very soon the shakes turned to smiles and words of “that’s good it works and is good”.

I was soon ready with the support of my new team to develop more family initiatives it was pretty frustrating at times as it took a while for the prison to embrace fully the family first concept. Shouts from security were of “what you mean prisoners are going to move around in the visits hall and garden and play and they are going to have glue and scissors”. The sceptics where less than happy with the plans eventually though with lots of planning, reassurance and persuasion and delivering on my promises of risk assessments and plans to cover every eventually we were ready.

It was now October 2012 the family play session was planned Halloween was the theme. Nerves were riding high no need it was fantastic all the prisoners asking when the next session would be happening saying they had never experienced anything like it before. In the beginning I never realised the impact these events would have on me and the prisoners.
At first family play sessions where only in school holidays but it soon became clear that we needed more sessions adding. In January 2013 family play sessions began to happen each month. Very quickly the program extended to toddler time and baby bonding.

Story book dads was soon introduced for prisoners to record a story for their child to have at home on a DVD. This initiative was the first attempt at working with outside agencies. This went well and continues today to delight all children when they receive their DVD many mothers saying that the children want to watch it continually. Treasure boxes are also offered to Dads who do not have regular contact with their children. They can create a keepsake box for their children that can be sent to them.

I continued to move forward with the initiatives offered with family days we are now with help from other departments providing them on a greater scale in the prison Gym with bouncing castles and slides. We have also had a steal band in and animal farm. This is supported by the prisoners themselves with funds given to us out of their amenity fund.

It was important to me that all prisoners got the opportunity to attend the sessions so all the initiatives where available to Grandad’s and uncles as well as Dads. I did not realise the impact of this until on one of the family play sessions a Grandad said that this had been “his best day ever” as at other prisons Granddad’s where not offered the opportunity to participate normally in these sessions. Something as simple as a photo of him and his Grandchildren meant so much, the grandchildren had been born while he was in prison so their where no photos of him and the children together. When the family and grandfather parted at the end of the day they all went away clutching much treasured photos. The prisoner and ‘Grandfather’ left HMP Thameside soon after this visit. Later in the year I received a letter from his Daughter thanking me for the photo I had taken informing me that her father had passed away while in custody. This was the only photo her children had of their Granddad and that they still talked about the happy time they spent with him, she said she took comfort from that.

When I arrived at the prison I was asked to take on the role of child protection co-ordinator this led to me writing the child at risk policy for the prison. After 33 years in this area of work and with my expertise it seemed the natural path to take. It was evident from day one that sadly prisoners can be forgotten by professionals. The saying out of sight out of mind was in my mind at this time. I was not happy with this concept so took on the task of speaking to all the prisoners who had questions to ask regarding their children. I continually was giving advice on their rights as fathers and helping them through leasing with social workers to regain contact. This gave me a good base to start with and has led me to regularly offering supervised contacts, final contacts and life story work which is unique to HMP Thameside.

One example of the success achieve is the example of a father who is serving a life sentence. Nine years previously he was assessed to decide whether he would be able to have contact with his children. He was told at this point having contact would not be appropriate.

When he arrived to us from another jail I got in touch with the Social Worker encouraging her to come in and reassess the opportunity for the father to be able to re-establish contact with his children. The Social Worker visited the father and after much persuasion and collaborative working he is now in regular contact with his two girls.

I also offer support and training internally to staff in the prison. This has led to the staff having a ‘sixth sense’ with child protection issues as they are confident to share their observations with me. This has led to Greenwich Social care getting information they need to help them to safeguard children effectively.

In June 2015 and I am proud to say that to date approximately 1400 prisoners have attended events with 4200 children getting the opportunity to spend time with their Dads and Granddad’s. My main focus from the beginning was using something I learnt 35 years ago when I trained as a Nursery Nurse I read a book about “building relationships” using play as a tool. I am very pleased to say that all these years later it works. Prisoners who have little contact with their children often have difficulty knowing what to do and say to their children. I am happy to say that all the events I run are full of talking and laughter so the ethos still works relationships can be built through just playing.


Here we are three and a half years on from joining the roller coaster ride at HMP Thameside or the ‘crazy game’ as we call it in my team. I could never have imagined that I could say I have shook hands with Princess Anne and have been honoured by winning the Butler Trust Commendation.

While writing this article I have gone through many emotions remembering the hard work I have put in to arrive where I sit now in my role as Family First Manager. The success I have achieved I feel comes down to the sort of person I am and the experiences I have had in my life. The prisoners have been my main drive in making sure that I do anything in my power to make sure they maintain or re-establish family ties. A big part of my job is just listening to prisoners who are in need of support and help they are then able to develop the skills they already have by advice and instruction this then helps with family interaction.

It has not been easy to get to where I am now and I have faced many challenges along the way from staff at the prison. The main thing I have faced is getting staff to understand the importance of prisoners having regular contact with their families and how this really does help to stop them re-offending. It has been essential to gain the trust of senior staff and this has over time helped them to recognise me as a professional person in my own right at the prison.

The good practice that I have developed will now go from strength to strength. Good practice will not end here as there are many new opportunities waiting to be developed.

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