Family-focused scheme offers new route to prisoner rehabilitation

In 2013 more than 200,000 children had a parent in prison in England & Wales. Caspar Walsh, author of prison memoir Criminal, speaks to those at the heart of a new scheme to empower prisoners to become better fathers

My father spent much of my childhood in prison. I swore I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps: a noble, predictably empty promise, as there was very little structured support to stop my slide into crime as a teenager.

Coming out of the other side, a recovering drug addict and former offender, I decided it was ultimately down to me to break this generational pattern of crime and punishment.

Much of my career for the past 25 years has been magnetically drawn to working in prisons with fathers and with the children of prisoners, who themselves are often young fathers.

In a report soon to be released from The Centre for Social Justice, there are alarming conclusions being drawn around the impact of the absence of dads on the nation’s children. Around one million children in the UK grow up with no contact with their father, often finding themselves lost in what is coldly coined ‘men deserts’.

In 2013 more than 200,000 children had a parent in prison in England and Wales. This is two and a half times the number of those in care and over six times the number of those on the Child Protection Register.

25% of men in Young Offenders Institutes are, or are shortly to become, fathers. And it’s hard to believe, but in 2006 more children were affected by the imprisonment of a parent than by divorce, with six out of ten boys with a convicted parent ending up in custody themselves. I was one of these statistics.

But a new programme at HM Prison and Young Offenders Institution Parc in Bridgend, South Wales, could lead to a revolution in reducing offending and reoffending rates throughout the UK. I was recently invited to the prison to witness their project, Invisible Walls Wales, which has been set up to address this crisis and empower prisoners to become better fathers.

Evidence within Parc prison confirms that rebuilding family ties lies at the heart of what is clearly a society-wide issue. The programme has taken seven years to set up and has recently been funded for a four year trial period from the Big Lottery Fund.

There is a focus is on supporting prisoners to strengthen their bonds with their family. In the family interventions unit, inmates are given a chance to take their armour off and have space and time to explore the deeper questions around their crimes and the impact they have had on their families.

“My support worker helps me see things from my child’s point of view, something I haven’t been very good at before. I am learning how to be a better father”

I asked the programme’s founder, Corin Morgan-Armstrong, senior manager for family interventions at Parc, what inspired him to create it.

“I found that the most effective and sustainable way to engage and motivate offenders was through their children and their families,” he says. “Even when prisoners had devastated them through their behaviour, they still had that desire for things to be different, to be better.”

He went on to outline some of the key fears fathers have when inside: “Losing contact, ceasing to matter to their families, being forgotten, becoming irrelevant and abandoned inside and after release.”

What has been clear to me throughout my time in the prison system is the need for a through-the-gate approach to rehabilitation. Morgan-Armstrong agrees: “Invisible Walls works with the whole family, prisoner, partner, parent, friend and child, pre- and post-release with the same team of staff and in partnership with the local authority, social services and schools.”

Support for the project is spreading throughout the prison and is being closely watched by several other UK prisons with a view to replicating it within their own regimes.

Parc director, Janet Wallsgrove, has backed the initiative from the beginning. “Everyone in prison should have a strategy around children and families,” she says. “Family is the glue that holds all our efforts at rehabilitation around jobs and resettlement and training together. We’re using Invisible Walls as a powerful motivator to help them change.”

Morgan-Armstrong explains how this can be achieved: “You have to shift the culture from one that views family-focused work within the prison as the occasional family day to one that has embedded the whole family approach as rehabilitation within offender management, security and learning.

“Transform prison visits from the traditional security focus to one where visits become the crucible of rehabilitation and resettlement.”

I met with several fathers currently on the family interventions wing and asked how Invisible Walls had helped them.

Paul speaks candidly about dealing with long-hidden emotions: “For the first time, I have been open and honest about my past life and also my relationship with my ex-partner and what’s going to happen with us when I get out.”

Tony goes on to explain how the programme is helping address his ongoing problems with crime: “Talking about what happened has helped me look at different ways of solving problems. My support worker helps me see things from my child’s point of view, something I haven’t been very good at before. I am learning how to be a better father.”

There has been resistance to such fundamental change within the system at Parc. Morgan-Armstrong highlights some of the key problems he encounters: “The biggest challenge is the shift in culture from one that predominately viewed this work as somebody else’s problem to one that recognises the huge impact working on the whole family can have.

“This challenge is a huge deal for prisons trying to make the cultural shift, but we are proving it can be done. This is about identifying the common ground among local partners, where mutually beneficial gains can be achieved by working together.”

The fathers I met clearly understand that it is their responsibility to do something to stop the damage being done to themselves, their children, their families and society in general.

As we left the wing on a bright summer’s day, feeling good to be heading for the main gate, I asked Morgan-Armstrong where the name Invisible Walls came from. Without words, he pointed to a poster: “Don’t let the wall stop you being a father.”

Prisoners’ names have been changed.

This article was based on a piece originally published by the Guardian, and is reproduced with permission.