Fathers in prison need support too

Keeping dads connected to their children during their sentence gives them purpose.

Over a quarter of young male offenders in prison are fathers. With the prison population bulging at 85,000, and the Ministry of Justice losing a quarter of its budget, Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s “rehabilitation revolution” must commit to schemes that work intensively with young men inside, or else risk fresh generations of children growing up without a dad.

Earlier this year, I filmed with a group of young dads enrolled on a parenting course in a Category B Young Offenders’ Institute in South London. I was aware that they’d done something serious to be serving a sentence there. But I was also surprised by how the role of being a father could be a catalyst for change in these men. A meaningful relationship with their children was vital to them: it helped them get through their sentence.

Nicky, a 20-year-old father of one, with another on the way at the time of filming, seemed brooding, and a man of few words at our first meeting. But later that week, from the privacy of his cell, he spoke freely of the separation from his child. “Feeding him breakfast. Seeing him run about and play. His first words. I miss all of that. I didn’t realize how much I would miss my son until I came to jail.” 

Keeping dads like Nicky connected to their children during their sentence gives them purpose. It helps to break the cycle of offending that costs the government between £9bn and £13bn a year. Over half of young people released from custody reoffend within a year. Two-thirds of boys with dads in prison go on to be convicted themselves.

This is not to diminish in any way the plight of mothers in prison, most of whom shouldn’t be there, and whose sentences cause unbelievable devastation both to their lives and those of their children. It’s to point out what people working with the women’s prison estate have said for years, that maintaining a close bond is fundamental to the mental health of the parent and minimises damage to their child.

But being a dad from prison is difficult, with partners at home bearing the brunt of the responsibility for keeping the relationship alive. Most male offenders are placed over 50 miles away from their home area, which is a long way to travel with small children, and involves absence from work or school. 

Visits can be stressful for parents, and confusing and upsetting for the children. There are metal detectors and uniformed officers, and offenders are fixed to their seats, wearing a bib, unable to get up and play, or chase after their children if they run off. It’s hardly surprising that 40 percent of offenders lose touch with their families while they’re inside. 

The effects of the separation on a child can be distressing. Sean, another dad I filmed with, told us how his four-year-old daughter regularly woke up in the night screaming his name. His partner admitted there were problems at school. Prisoners' children are three times more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour and around a third experience significant mental health problems.  

There are creative, low-cost schemes operating across the prison estate that equip dads on the inside with the tools to be better fathers. The course I filmed was Time to Connect, run by the Prison Advice and Care Trust for both female and male offenders. It uses play techniques such as clay modelling to draw out childhood memories, and makes the inmates think about the kind of parent they want to be, whilst giving them tips on how to get more out of their visits. 

The course finishes with a Family Day where the offenders are free to move around and play with their children.  The aim is for parent and child alike to come away feeling positive about their time together.

The worry is that schemes like this will be at the sharp end of cuts, as family support work comes directly out of prison governors’ already stretched budgets. If Chris Grayling is committed to reducing reoffending, then he has to believe that the work starts inside, not at the prison gates. A payments-by-results system for ex-offenders stands a greater chance of success if they’ve already got something to stay out for.

Over the course of filming, I heard familiar stories, landmarks on the way to spending time inside: childhoods spent in and out of the care system, the lack of even basic qualifications, and the overwhelming pressure of gang allegiances. The most repeated story I heard was the desire to be a better father than the one they had. The opportunity the prison system has is to help them learn how to be one.

Cat McShane is a documentary maker and writer

A prison officer stands outside Winson Green Prison, Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.