The overall winning project of the Community Care Awards 2006 was Family Days by the Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group. Louise Tickle meets the team
You’re 15 years old and you’ve just been sentenced. You’re upset, scared and you haven’t a clue what prison is going to be like, except you’re pretty sure it’s going to be bad. As you’re taken away, you can see your mum and your pregnant girlfriend hugging each other. Both are in tears.
Take another scenario: your son has just been sent down. It’ll be the first time he’s ever been in jail and you know he’s frightened. So are you. There’s all sorts of stories about brutality and bullying in prison and he’s been through such a lot already. You don’t know how he’ll cope. Who will make sure he takes his asthma medication? Can you bring him clean clothes?
Another familiar situation for some:
Your boyfriend has just been taken away in a prison van and you’re due to give birth in a month. You’re desperately upset and furious with him. You don’t know if he’ll be able to be with you when the baby is born or even if you’ll be allowed to bring your child into the prison. Will your baby ever have a chance to get to know its father?
But for those whose family members have been sent to HM Young Offender Institution Hindley in Lancashire, it’s at precisely this point of uncertainty and stress that Partners of Prisoners (POP) will step in to offer support.
The groundbreaking POP project at Hindley YOI that helps young people aged 15-18 and their families won both the Supporting Children and Families category of the Community Care Awards 2006 and was also the overall award winner.
Partners of Prisoners have provided family link workers to prisons across north west England since 2002. They are based in the prison and act as a broker between families and offenders ensuring that families are able to support the offender effectively.
The Hindley project does all this and more. It started in 2002 as a one-year pilot funded by the Youth Justice Board when Hindley YOI first began taking in juveniles (aged 15-18). It now has three dedicated members of staff who work independently of prison staff, mixing with juveniles and young offenders on the wing.
Angela Boland, the family link worker who established the pilot, says that it’s a much-needed service that offers reassurance to families when they are at their most vulnerable. She interviews each young person on a one-to-one basis when they first enter the YOI and asks specifically about their family circumstances and relationships.
She will find out whether the young man in question is a father and discuss in some detail his anxiety about the relatives and girlfriend he has left behind. By that first night, or at the latest by the next day, she will have posted out a comprehensive information pack specifically developed by POP for the inmate’s immediate family. This includes a detailed explanation of the daily routine the young person will be experiencing inside the YOI, the rights of juveniles and young adults in prison, visiting entitlements, how those visits are conducted and how the family will be treated. She also includes a phone number that connects her directly with parents and partners, bypassing prison bureaucracy.
“For families, knowing that there is someone inside who is independent of the prison service, and who is there to help look after their son or partner is very comforting,” Boland says.
“For the young person prison can be petrifying, so we are often dealing with self-harm, bullying, child protection issues and suicide prevention. They will often disclose to us before anyone else, because we’re around and about on the wing, we’re not prison staff, and they know we’re there just for them.”
She makes the point that a lot of young people arrive in prison at a point when their relationship with their family has completely broken down. She and her colleagues spend time encouraging families to come in to talk through the problems that existed before their family member was convicted, and the painful implications that their imprisonment has for the family.
Research carried out by Nancy Loucks for the Prison Reform Trust shows that keeping family relationships going while a young person is inside can have a major effect on the likelihood of them re-offending on release.(1) This makes sense: if a 17-year-old boy walks out of a YOI and is barred from coming home, he’ll most likely end up in a hostel or in B&B accommodation without any emotional support at a time when he is already traumatised. If he’s unable to see his child or partner because the relationship has irrevocably broken down during his sentence, there might not seem to be an awful lot to live for, and a destructive downward spiral can rapidly ensue.
Boland realised that maintaining the relationship that young fathers had with their children was vital. But the environment of a prison visiting hall was far from conducive to happy family fun time. Prisoners meet their visitors across a table and are not allowed to leave their seat.
Hugging your child or just general physical playfulness is not permitted. To help build relationships between prisoners and their children, the family link workers at Hindley YOI have introduced a new aspect to their service over the last two years: Family Days designed to give families and offenders meaningful contact time together.
The first Dad’s Special Day took place in July 2004. Inmates made individual applications which were vetted, and those who passed were allowed to play with their children in a more relaxed setting than they had ever experienced while in jail. The session was a huge success leading to several more being arranged. One of these, in December 2005, saw four juveniles and 11 young adults playing with 22 children at a Christmas party in the prison gym where face painting, craft activities, games and making reindeer cakes were all on offer.
Boland emphasises that the success of these sessions is down to a co-ordinated effort by staff throughout the prison. Special permission has been gained from the governor for the inmates to keep photographs of themselves taken with their children in the play sessions, (there is usually a ban on inmates having pictures of themselves).
She makes the point that these photos are highly significant to a young person serving out a long sentence and often take pride of place in their cell. Shaun Wilkinson, a young man currently serving out his sentence at Hindley YOI, says that as he rarely gets to see his daughter, these special visiting days mean a lot. “With the dad’s day I get to see my child enjoying herself. I get to see her smiling and laughing and it’s all thanks to the scheme at Hindley.”
With the family days now seen as best practice for keeping relationships going between parents, partners and children, Boland’s work at Hindley has been praised by the prisons inspectorate. If other YOIs follow her example, there may yet be a rush for cake ingredients and face paints…
(1) N Loucks, Keeping in Touch – the Case for Family Support Work in Prison, Prison Reform Trust, 2005
This article appeared in the 4 January issue under the headline “Partners inside”
This weeks other Feature articles