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Fathers in prison need support too

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

A prison officer stands outside Winson Green Prison, Birmingham
A prison officer stands outside Winson Green Prison, Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images

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