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
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.