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
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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.