Reframing Visits

When you go into prison, visits take on extra importance; it’s the only time that you get to see the people who matter most to you. Of course, you might not want to see them – it’s pretty difficult to when you’re at your most vulnerable, however big and loud you might come across to the other lads on the wing.

The number of visits you can get whilst in prison depends on how well you behave, through a scheme called IEP (incentives and earned privileges). You get less entitlement to visits if you are on a ‘basic’ regime than if you are on ‘standard’ and you get more when you are an ‘enhanced’ category prisoner. Managing behaviour in prisons is a key focus for prison staff, who work hard to keep everyone safe and encourage guys who find themselves in custody to improve their chances on release. There need to be rewards and punishments to help them to do this, just like there are in every other setting.

Crucially however, this also impacts on other areas of rehabilitation. In many – in fact, most – prisons, things like family days, Storybook Dads (recording a story to be given to your children) and parenting groups are seen as a luxury and are only available to those prisoners on ‘enhanced’ status. There are also many who say that men (and indeed, women) in custody do not deserve to spend time with their families, whether they are enhanced or not.

Taken back to its very basic level, it’s not the family’s fault that he’s in prison. The UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) states that every child has a right to family contact, where that is safe for them to do. It’s not dependent on how well those parents behave. Contact with your own children is not used as a reward in any other setting, so why should prison be different?

The other problem is that, for a guy on basic regime, he is getting less family contact at this time anyway. It may even have been a family issue that led to him kicking off and getting himself in this situation in the first place – maybe a letter from Social Services telling him that his children are going to be adopted. A failed attempt to see them one last time to say goodbye. A row with his partner, a close bereavement…all very common situations that lead to high emotions and a sense of helplessness, and for someone who isn’t great at dealing with strong emotions and disappointment, for someone who finds it difficult to contain and manage anger, it’s going to come out somewhere.

This doesn’t make it right to ‘kick off’, obviously. Those who would pose a risk to the safety of others need to see consequences, just like anyone else in society would. But it doesn’t need to be an automatic barrier to accessing the very support that may be exactly what you need at this time. Contact with family, a space to sort these problems out and clarify plans for the future can be helpful. Spending a day with your child reminds you that there’s more to think of than yourself and can actually help to improve behaviour, restore hope in the future and help to relabel someone in custody as ‘Dad’ when all they feel is ‘prisoner’. It’s a reminder that it’s not just you that’s having a hard time, your family are too. There will of course be times when this isn’t the most appropriate thing; no-one wants to put anyone else at risk. We do however need to take the time to understand individuals and assess needs on a human-to-human basis rather than adopt a ‘computer says no’ attitude.

In Wales, Pact are pushing for visits to be seen as an intervention, just like education or drug and alcohol support. We believe that all prisoners should be able to access family interventions as part of their rehabilitation and we see every day the difference that it makes to young Dads and their outlook. Each person needs to be reviewed on an individual level, and decisions made on a case-by-case basis. We need to recognise that sometimes it’s the people with the biggest problems that need this support the most, and benefit the greatest.

Preparing for release at an open prison

You’ve had your trial, been sentenced and done your time in prison – surely being released is the easy part, looking forward to having your freedom again, returning home to your family and settling back into the community?

But families tell us that when a young Dad comes back to his family having been away – whether it’s for a few months or a few years – the ‘splash’ he makes and the ripples from it can be very difficult for everyone. He’s removed from the routine of the family, having internalised a new regime from the prison. He and his partner need to get to know each other again, reconnect – his partner may have even moved on, found someone new or moved house.

Children change so much too. The contrast between a 3-month old that he left behind and a 1-year-old that he returns to present him with a world of difference. New bonding needs to happen, and learning about each other takes time, patience and commitment. Older children may have stepped into new roles, changed schools, made new friends and honed new interests. They may be jealous that there is another person in the household. Families tell us that managing these old relationships in a new way puts a big strain on a family, and really tests them. Yet it is these same families that we rely on to support for the ex-offender, through their offer of stable accommodation, financial scaffolding and warm, human care, helping him to stay out of prison and not become another reoffending statistic.

At Wales’ open prison, HMP Prescoed near Usk in Newport, our Family Engagement Worker Julia is an important part of reducing reoffending for prisoners as well as providing valuable support for them and their families. Many of the prisoners there are receiving ROTL, ‘Release On Temporary License’, allowing them to have home visits, and go out to work. As a senior manager at Prescoed explained, “this is a crucial time for them to have the PACT support helping them to rebuild bonds with their families at this important time close to their release. Many families have to live apart on release due to licence conditions and when the families find out they usually phone for any support they can have. This is when we work with other community based agencies to refer the family on; this way we know that they will be receiving the support they need. Pact offer support for the families on the outside – something that we don’t – and therefore the service is invaluable to us”.

For those prisoners who do not yet receive ROTL the family visits that are held at Prescoed are an immense boost for both the prisoners and their families and provide a much needed service. “My kids loved it”, quoted a prisoner after the last family day, “can we have one every week?”

Pact aim to be accessible and make it easy for prisoners, families, staff and other agencies to refer families for support, something that another service-user quoted to us: “Pact is a service that I find easy to link in with here at Prescoed as is promoted well in the prison”. In partnership with the Prison Service, it means that we can help families at that crucial time in their lives when the importance of reconnecting effectively may set the course of the path for their future.

Nadia, Pact @ Cardiff

So its been a while since I have written a blog for our project! Almost feels like yesterday I joined Pact and was getting used to my environment and settling into my role. A lot has changed in the past 18 months and our family services at Cardiff are developing constantly through the help of our team and service users.

We are now running several courses including our Pact parenting course, “Time to Connect” and a relationship course called “Within My Reach”. The courses run throughout the year and we have had some great feedback for those attending our courses. It gives the men an opportunity to work on valuable life skills that will help them be better parents and partners from custody as well as when they are released. I am in a fortunate position where I am part of a lucky few piloting a domestic abuse perpetrator course at Swansea prison called “Choose to Change”. It has taken a long time and a huge amount of work from many different people and agencies to get to where we are now. We are 4 weeks in and are starting to see the men really engage in the session and think about things in a different way. Some are starting to take ownership of what they have done and are really keen to change the way they behave in their relationship or future relationships. They are also becoming aware of the impact that domestic abuse has on their partner, children and family as well as the costs for themselves. I’m excited to see the results and feedback from the pilot and hopefully one day in the near future we will bring this course to Cardiff HMP.

We have also been doing lots of work with Social Services and have had an opportunity to do some great partnership working. We have attended meetings outside the prison on behalf of Dads as well as bringing the meetings into the prison so that the Dads can attend themselves. Last month we liaised with social services and arranged a child in need review meeting to take part in the prison. All agencies who were involved with this case came to the prison to review the child’s situation but this time Dad could come as well. When I first started working with Dad in this case, he spoke to me about feeling left out and not knowing exactly what was happening. There was always so much to talk about when his wife phoned that they couldn’t fit it all in and on visits with the children there, it wasn’t appropriate to discuss what was going on with Social Services. His wife was going to these meetings on her own on the outside and could not always relay the information. She was also in need of some emotional support, she wanted her husband there to be for her as well as be part of the action plan for their daughter.

I suggested to dad that this meeting could be held inside the jail so he could attend and finally feel part of what was going on. Dad responded “In here? You can really do that?”. This was something that had never crossed his mind. After liaising with the social worker she thought it was a great idea to do it here. We both agreed there are two parents in this family so two parents should be involved in the meetings for their daughter. We are fortunate to be in this position where we could offer this. After working alongside Social Services and the prison to facilitate this we are now going to hold these meetings here regularly for Mum and Dad. After the first review meeting, Dad said he “felt involved” and that he could “understand what was going on”. It was definitely a huge result to have the meetings held here. It is times like this that you realise the unique position we are in to be able to help facilitate something like this that otherwise would not have happened.

A word from two valued volunteers

We have been volunteering at PACT in HMP Cardiff throughout our final year at university. We applied for this position as we both shared a concern in regards to what support and care is offered for service users and their families, in what must be the most difficult period of their lives. The importance of supporting families has often been overlooked, however, from working with PACT we have both witnessed the invaluable work they do and we are proud to be a part of it. As a part of this voluntary work we both assist in the play area and tea bar in an attempt to make the environment less hostile for visiting children and to promote positive relationships with families, which are both of vital importance to the service user. Alongside this work, we have also been lucky enough to attend a number of training days which has broadened our knowledge and understanding of some of the daily struggles of prison life and the affect these struggles have not only on the service user, but also their families. Recently, we attended psychosocial interventions training at HMP Swansea. This training provided us with a number of useful resources and helped us gain skills which we feel will be vital for our future involvement with mentoring; another opportunity that PACT has created for us. After this training, we sat in a Regional Meeting with PACT employees that were based across Wales and the South West. We felt very lucky to be able to learn more about the incredible work that goes on across the organisation and the variety of projects which are underway. We have both thoroughly enjoyed our involvement with PACT so far and look forward to being involved in more opportunities that are available to us in the future.

Digital Storytelling

Last week five of us from Swansea, Cardiff and Usk/Prescoed embarked on a three day Digital Storytelling course. This training has been on the cards for a while but finding three days where we’re all free proved harder than we first thought so it was great to finally get going.

Digital Storytelling is a beautiful way for people to tell their journey. When done well it seamlessly blends photos and words to create a two and a half minute narrative on any subject at all. Lisa and Iain, our trainers from StoryWorks only had three days to teach us everything from interview technique to photo editing; story telling to movie making.

Before we arrived we knew little of what we would be doing. We had been told to bring some photos of something important to us that we’d be able to use to create a Digital Story on. This was easy enough for me – I can happily talk about my circus obsession for hours. What took me by surprise was the news that we would not be doing a Digital Story on ourselves. Instead someone else would interview us, decide what sound bites to keep and which to discard before choosing the best few photos to fit with the recording. I wouldn’t like to describe myself as a control freak, but ceding this power to someone else was very difficult. What if they didn’t use my favourite photos? What if they didn’t get across the message I wanted them to?

The time constraints of the course meant that we were only able to focus on the story we were editing. It was not possible to have any input into the story that Christine was making on me. Luckily for me Christine put together a lovely video based on what I’d given her. However, the experience of not being consulted on the end product before it was aired I found very disconcerting and disempowering.

As a concept, I’m completely sold on Digital Storytelling. It’s a very powerful tool to use when telling someone’s story. A lot of the work we do and the impact we have is immeasurable. I hope that we can use Digital Storytelling to show people more of our work. It will be great to use in workshops for professionals, or with children and young people to let them know that they are not alone in their thoughts and feelings. When it comes to doing our first video, I hope that we are able to consult the story tellers at every point in the editing process so that this is something we do together and doesn’t end up as another thing that is done to them.

Thoughts from a young Cardiff Dad

“I am 33 years old and have been in prison for almost three months of a three year sentence; it has had an impact not just on me, but my partner and other family. I have a close family who stand by me and help, but I know I am one of the lucky ones that has this support. I still struggle because my partner is eight months pregnant with our first child, so being away from her while she is pregnant hurts. I am going to miss the birth of my first child and at least the first year of her life.

Yes I know I will make it up to my unborn daughter upon release, but that does not stop me thinking of the time I am going to miss. Being locked in your cell for twenty-two hours a day makes you think constantly of your loved ones. Since I’ve gained employment, it is easier. I speak to my partner on the phone everyday and see her once a week, but, when my partner is going through this without me because of my silly actions, I could never forgive myself if something happened or went wrong and I wasn’t there for her.

It is only now that I have heard of PACT and hopefully I will be able to work with them in the near future. PACT is a charity based agency from outside the prison that works within HMP Cardiff helping families stay in touch. Some of the things PACT do are parenting courses, family days and the one that appeals to me is the new born baby group, which involves me having regular, extended visits with my partner and new born daughter which will allow me to feed my baby, change nappies and experience a lot more of her early stages of life. I will be able to form a better bond with my daughter while I’m in prison.

Things are definitely looking up, I saw a member of the PACT team in passing, got talking with her and she took my details. I am now really looking forward to working with them and spending some quality time with my daughter when she arrives into this world. My whole perspective of this sentence has changed because I now have something to look forward to and work towards. I now feel so much more positive.

As for the next step, March 2nd will be a day I will never forget: my beautiful Abigail finally comes into this world and thanks to PACT, I will be spending quality time with her and my family, something that I never thought possible when I received my sentence”.

Old problem, new solutions

Some days its hard not to get disheartened. There feels like there’s so much to do in terms of prisoners’ families – so many narrow opinions to battle, so many hearts and minds to win, so many practical things that could be implemented if only there was more money, staff or time. It’s hard to remember how far we’ve come and to appreciate everything that is possible, and the hearts and minds that have been won.

I would imagine that, in 1837, things were very different. For my ancestor Edward Baskerville, a young man with an impoverished background, times were very hard. His new young wife, Mary, had just given birth to their first child, a son named John, but another little human being meant another mouth to feed and another tiny body to clothe. A labourer, he didn’t make enough to make ends meet and so he broke into a neighbour’s house and stole a coat and a piece of bacon, which was reported in detail in the local press.

At times when I consider the penal system to be intolerant, I think about Edward. For his crime, he was sentenced to 10 years transportation, effective immediately. I can just imagine it – his dismay, young Mary’s horror and tears. She must have been wondering how she was going to support her 6 month old baby and what on earth she was going to do now that he was gone, having no other apparent family to help her. I would imagine that the feelings of helplessness and abandonment experienced by families are no less acute now than they were then.

Edward served 7 years of his 10 year sentence. After spending almost all of that 7 years in Bermuda, building the dock there, Edward’s prison ship was decommissioned and rather than transfer the prisoners, most of them were released. Edward’s record notes his honest and industrious nature; perhaps even as a prisoner, he was a human being too, struggling to make ends meet for his family.

I’ve no idea how he got back to Hereford in 1844, where his family were. I’ve no idea if he found Mary, who became a farm labourer herself to support her child, remained single and mothered no other children. I don’t know what she told her son John or her community. My sense of longing to understand must have been multiplied many times for him; he must have worried about them and what they were doing while he was removed from their lives. Did she wait for him? Did he surprise her by coming back early? How did John, now almost 8 years old, react to this new person? Is this so very different to the experiences of prisoners and families today?

I don’t know what happened in the next few years, but Edward was arrested again in 1848, for breaking into a house and stealing a jacket and a pair of breeches. Presumably, as the man whose house he broke into was of a similar age to himself, they were clothes that he intended to wear. It seems that his prison sentence had done little to address his problems, apparently again stemming from poverty and desperation. Once again the court were keen to remove him from the community, and another 10 year transportation sentence began, which found Edward reach Tasmania, only to die a few years later on Australian soil just a year after his wife died in Hereford.

I guess that the point I’m trying to make is that the issues that we face are not new. The understanding of wider social issues has undoubtedly increased manyfold, as have the interventions and support available for families and children. But we still have work to do to support today’s Edwards, Marys and Johns.

Happily, Edward’s son John enjoyed a long and law-abiding life as a farm hand, able to support his large family who then supported him into his old age. At least he didn’t become a statistic of intergenerational reoffending.