I have lived near HMP Wandsworth for almost twenty years, but until recently had never thought much about the 1,600 men being held in this austere Victorian fortress, one of the largest prisons in the country. This autumn I had the privilege of running a Care for the Family parenting course in the prison, assisted by their Anglican chaplain, Wendy Stephens. I had connected with the prison about a year ago through my work with Care for the Family, a national charity whose aim is to strengthen family life. We know from Lord Farmer’s landmark review in 2017 that family relationships are the ‘golden thread’ which help reduce reoffending and break the cycle of intergenerational crime. Building strong bonds with family members is the biggest motivational factor helping prisoners to not reoffend. So when Governor Clay asked if I would be willing to run a parenting course for some of the dads in the prison, and Wendy offered to support, I felt it was an opportunity not to be missed.
It was a challenging course to run! I have been running Care for the Family’s Time Out for Parents courses in my local community for almost ten years, but in churches and schools – very different to the prison setting. The challenges were many, aside from the obvious challenge of being in a prison, which can be daunting – especially for two females in a very male environment. Our group of dads had a fairly low attention span, and were easily distracted. We had frequent disruptions and strong personalities to manage. Their situations were complex and the stories often heartbreaking. It was hard for the men to see how they could apply the principles of the course to their situation. Being a parent is never easy, but it is much harder for those who are trying to be good dads from prison. For example, how do you help set and enforce boundaries from a distance, especially when you don’t want to spend your precious phone calls and visits with your children being the disciplinarian?
But for all the challenges, the course was very special. Our eleven dads all came back every week for five weeks. Every week they were ready on time and most arrived cheerful and smiling. We formed good relationships with the group. We worked hard to deliver the excellent material faithfully, tweaking it as best we could to make it relevant to their particular situations. We tried our best to encourage them to think about how they could put little things into practice during a phone call or on a visit, and to encourage them that they can be good dads even though they are in prison. There were a few golden moments where the room was silent and everyone seemed focused, and it felt that something significant was taking place. At the end of each session, our men were always able to come up with something that had stood out for them that week.
The highlight of the course was the extended family visit, which followed the final session. This had been the main reason why the dads had signed up for the course. It was very rewarding for us to see the men with their families. They shared food together and we had brought in activities for them to do with their children. There was one especially heartwarming moment as I was watching one of the dads interact with his daughter. They were working together beautifully, making a wooden model of a dinosaur. As I complimented them on their brilliant teamwork, the dad said to me, “Kate, I keep thinking about that exercise we did in the group when you showed us how to play with our children and let them lead. I’m trying to do what you showed us.” It was such an encouragement to hear that. We trust that good seeds have been sown in their hearts and pray that God will continue to water these.
Although at times there were moans and groans from the men, the course evaluations were largely positive and encouraging. All eleven men said they would recommend the course to others. One dad said, “The course has made me change my way of thinking when my kids misbehave.” Another summed up the course by saying, “Nobody is perfect. We can all learn something new. Even if you get one thing from the workshop, you’ve gained something, even if it’s just clarification that what you’re doing is right.”
At the end of the course, we left each of the dads a copy of Care for the Family’s book Daddy’s Working Away: A Guide To Being A Good Dad In Prison – an easy-to-read, practical book with contributions by prisoners and their families. The Governor, who had been so supportive of the course all the way through, thanked us warmly for running it, saying that it was an important strand of the prison’s commitment to supporting prisoners’ family ties.
Going forward, Wendy now hopes to complete the Time Out for Parents facilitator training herself, so that she can continue this initiative and deliver further courses in the future.
 The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime, Lord Farmer, August 2017