Barred from parenting

The problems associated with parenting by young, socially
excluded people are massively exacerbated when young parents face a
custodial sentence. They are made to leave a young partner, usually
female, to cope with the children alone, and are in effect removed
from the parenting equation. This is the situation that a
significant number of young offenders and their families face

According to the Prison Reform Trust there were 10,930 under-21s in
prison last month – 10,334 males and 596 females. The government’s
prisoners’ learning and skills unit claims that a quarter of young
offenders are fathers. However, Ann Renton, national co-ordinator
with New Bridge, a charity that links offenders to the community,
says “at least 50 per cent” are parents. The discrepancy arises,
she adds, from young offenders not being routinely asked whether
they are parents.

The young parent inside has to rely on prison visits and phone
calls for any contact with their children. Juliet Lyon, director of
the Prison Reform Trust, believes their vulnerability is often
forgotten. Many services target vulnerable young parents in the
community. But when young parents offend, they seem to leave this
category and enter territory where the offending eclipses their
vulnerability, says Lyon. Renton adds that many offenders are
raised in care or in dysfunctional families and have never had a
role model. “A lot of guys want to be good dads but few have the

She co-ordinates a national parenting course for young offenders,
called Family Matters. Last year it was delivered in six young
offenders institutions. Three trained volunteers – not teachers but
people with life experience – deliver the course. There are no
desks and the group works in a circle.

“Normal education doesn’t work for this group, as they have been
excluded all their lives,” Renton says.

In the six two-hour sessions, the course looks at the choices
around pregnancy, birth, keeping children safe, physical and
emotional development, and practical issues, including changing
nappies and bathing, and communication.

The prisoners’ learning and skills unit claims that 62 per cent of
prisons were delivering parenting courses last year. But Lucy
Gampell, director of Action for Prisoners’ Families, describes it
as learning to drive without having a car in which to practise,
then getting into one two years later.

“It is questionable how much benefit these courses have,
particularly as they do not involve the partner,” she says.

Young offenders experience a number of barriers to parenting. Even
maintaining links with their families outside can be difficult. “It
is not easy to visit someone in prison,” Renton says. “The
transport links are never good and some prisons do not have visitor
centres. This hardly encourages family relationships.”

Making appointments for visits can be difficult and time-consuming,
she adds, and weekday visiting hours make it hard for working
partners or school-children to attend. “There is sometimes a lack
of regard for the families.”

“There is also the financial barrier,” says Gampell. Young mothers
on benefits can claim financial assistance for visits, but the
system is bureaucratic and access to information is difficult. Not
surprisingly, prison visits have dropped by a third, Lyon says,
which is “a real cause for concern”.

Sentenced prisoners are often moved round the country in the
“churn” created by the need to keep the increasing number of remand
prisoners near courts. This disrupts family contact and any
constructive prisoner activities.

Later this month the Prison Reform Trust will call for more links
between the parenting work in young offenders institutions and
family services in the community. Tony De-St-Aubin, who was a young
father in custody (see An Insider’s View), backs this idea.

He believes rehabilitation does work in prison settings but more
community support is needed for prisoners after release. “I was
scared stiff after release. I couldn’t cross the road – I hadn’t
seen a car for more than two years.”

The Prison Reform Trust will continue to campaign for an
alternative to custody where possible. Although the best prisons
work to re-forge links with families, “if we can avoid breaking
them in the first place, all the better”, Lyon says. “The Prison
Service must also find a way of routinely asking these people
whether they are parents and take this into account in the

Renton agrees: “How can they put in place support services for the
fathers if they don’t know whether they are a father?”

Gampell urges more children’s visits to help young offenders
develop parent-child relationships. These are usually longer than
normal visits and allow parents and children to spend informal
time, playing or eating together. And partners of prisoners should
be allowed to attend prison parenting courses “to allow the work to
be done in a family unit as opposed to one part of it”, she

Young people’s charity Young Voice calls for improved prisoner
contact with their families by having opening hours at visitor
centres that suit families’ needs and procedures for co-ordinated
travel, such as a mini-bus from town centres to prisons. It urges
better information for families after sentencing and better
notification for families when a prisoner is moved.

“Parenting definitely can work if support systems are put in
place,” says Renton. “There is a huge amount of young fathers who
want it to work and a lot of dedicated women. They are just not
given any encouragement.”

Lyon adds: “If we can support these young dads to be the dads they
want to be, we are not just helping them with family support but
also there is a better chance of preventing re-offending.”

An insider’s view

Tony De-St-Aubin was 23 when he was sentenced to four-and-a-half
years at Wandsworth Prison. He had two children but his marriage
had already broken down and as a result he lost contact with his
ex-wife and children while he was inside. 

He started a new relationship before imprisonment and was acting
as a father-figure to his partner’s 11-year-old daughter. But in
prison he refused to let her visit him. De-St-Aubin, who had been
in care from the age of 16, was put forward for a parenting course
with educational charity Safeground. The three-week drama-based
course concentrated on social, communication and life skills and
helped him realise that his children would still want contact.  The
11-year-old began to visit him and they have subsequently
established a good relationship. But he still has no contact with
his two children. His wife re-married and he accepts her right to
establish a family unit and does not want to interfere.   He now
works for educational charity Safeground and this month the “family
man” course pioneered at Wandsworth Prison was launched across
England and Wales. He has successfully applied for funding through
the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to create a “What next?” programme,
offering prisoners and ex-prisoners a range of services.  With a
career and a baby on the way, De-St-Aubin says he now has a lot to
lose. His plans for the future are to stay out of jail, look after
the baby and help as many prisoners as possible.

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