Warren Brackett, a strapping man with BRACKETT on the back of a Manchester United shirt, is cuddling his pretty seven-year-old daughter and helping her with some clay modelling. “Tekitha,” he says, “why don’t you make a butterfly like the one painted on your face?” They set out moulding a wing as Warren’s partner, Alex, looks on. “It’s great to see them together,” she says. “Tekitha was so excited about coming here. She’s been looking forward to coming to prison for weeks.”
Warren, 30, hasn’t been able to hang out with his daughter like this since he was jailed three years ago for possession of a firearm. “This brings back a bit of normality because the children are getting punished just as much as we are,” says Warren, whose release date is July 2008. When asked what her best part of the day has been, Tekitha replies: “That’s easy: playing with my dad.”
Alex and Tekitha, along with the wives, partners and children of around 20 other prisoners, are taking part in a “family friendly” day within the confines of Blantyre House prison in rural Kent. The events, which last year took place in around half of jails in England and Wales, are a world away from the hostile visiting environments in many prisons, where prisoners are not allowed to leave their seats to play with their children and can show little parental care.
Traditional visits, which take place over a table under close scrutiny of a prison guard, are hard to organise, and often involve a difficult journey and prisoners’ children of all ages being searched. No wonder, then, that the number of prison visits has fallen over the last few years despite the prison population rising to a record 80,000, and that half of inmates lose contact with their families while they are inside.
The theme for today’s family event at HMP Blantyre, an open prison which looks like a 1970s Butlins resort, is the Wild West. Children and their parents have been designing Native Indian head-dresses, colouring in sheriffs and Indian chiefs, solving word searches and learning. Inmates at Blantyre take an active part in dreaming up and organising the events – although a request for real horses and a rodeo was rejected by the Governor.
Just before lunch, a game of football kicks off, with boys eager to show their dads how they have improved. Leonard Guy Ayscough, 42, who is serving three years of a six-year sentence for a drug-related offence, arrived at Blantyre House six weeks ago after stays at Belmarsh and Wandsworth. He says: “Its all about building things back up with your family. The kids feel relaxed and, for five minutes, playing football with my sons I almost forgot where I was.”
Leonard’s wife Karen is more down to earth about the value of the day. “It makes the dads realise what they have done, that he can’t go and play football with the kids when he wants. When we go home at 4pm, he’ll go back to his room. He’ll reflect on what he is missing and make sure he doesn’t come back here.”
Their son, Guy, 14, adds: “It’s better than the other places because you don’t get searched, which made me feel uncomfortable. The last time I played football with him was three years ago – and he’s got worse! I told him what I’ve been doing in college – some painting and construction. He’s proud of me. That makes me feel better.”
Although being separated from your family forms part of the punishment of a custodial prison sentence, supporters of family friendly days say the positive effect they have on families has a wider effect on the community.
According to a 2002 report by the government’s Social Exclusion Unit, inmates who keep in contact with their families are six times less likely to re-offend upon release than those who do not.
“Not only do children benefit from quality contact with their imprisoned parents but decent family visits can play a vital role in rehabilitation,” says Lucy Gampell, director of Action for Prisoners’ Families, which last year challenged every prison to hold a family friendly event.
In March, Michael Spurr, Deputy Director General of the Prison Service, praised family friendly days at an APF awards ceremony for prison staff who had hosted events in 67 jails. “They improve parenting, maintain family ties and are really worthwhile,” Spurr said. “We do have to balance it with security because there are risks. But you can do both.”
Although the days at Blantyre have a fun element, their key role is an educational one, to teach fathers about their child’s development in literacy and numeracy and to encourage them to further their own education. The course has involved learning about the national curriculum and how to best help their children with learning.
Clint Sproul, 45, who is sentenced to nine years for an armed robbery he committed while addicted to drugs, says taking on a key role in organising the family days at Blantyre, administered by the Kent Adult Education Service, has led to him taking a greater interest in his eight-year-old son’s school life.
“I see all Charlie’s reports and the teachers keep me up to date with his progress,” Sproul says. “People here are doing stuff with their kids they have never done before, by actively taking part in the day and organising it they are taking responsibility for their children.”
Sproul says the events release important emotions in both parents and children. “It increases the spiritual bond between parents and children. By the kids coming here, they also have the chance to express themselves about a taboo subject they can bond with other kids and talk about it.”
Charlie’s mum, Lynne Springall, says the alternative to family friendly days of “sitting in a room with a prison officer breathing down your neck” often ends in disappointment. In other jails, she says, Clint was not allowed to get off his chair and the kids had to stay in a play pen and it was hard for the little ones to understand.
Sam Hart, who organises the days at Blantyre, points out that the events are not about promoting a glossy image of family life. “Things do go wrong sometimes. But parenting is not all about an easy life it’s about getting fathers to change dirty nappies for the first time in their lives. These days give prisoners a more realistic view of parenting that you wouldn’t get on normal visits.”
Deputy Governor at category C jail HMP Maidstone, Jane Newsome, says the days “give encouragement for prisoners to behave so that they have the ‘enhanced status’ they need to attend”. Her family days involve children bringing in their schoolwork, decorating the visiting hall with balloons, gardening, badge-making and, most recently, turning their jail dads into Egyptian mummies by wrapping them in toilet roll.
For Catherine, sitting behind the goal watching her two children Billy, seven, and Jack, 11, play football with her husband Mick, who was jailed for 12 years in 2002 after seriously injuring someone in a pub fight, the family days at Blantyre are crucial.
“As a parent, bringing your children into a prison environment is the last thing you want to do,” says Catherine. “But this is a fantastic opportunity, and these days have helped to rebuild this family again.”
The down side is that, every time they leave after a visit, Billy gets angry with Catherine for making him leave his dad behind, and the whole family feels deflated.
“Today is so lovely but we’ve got to wait another two months for another day like this,” Catherine says. “Billy wakes up shouting his dad’s name. Emotionally it’s very hard for the children. Make no mistake, we are doing a sentence too.”
Fathers in Prison image set
This article appeared in the 31 May issue under the headline “Prison break”