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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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism