Working with families affected by imprisonment

When a parent is sent to prison one of the first casualties is their relationship with their family, says the project manager of Circle Scotland's Families Affected By Imprisonment (Fabi) programme, Marina Shaw.

Working to minimise the dislocation of families after the imprisonment of a parent helps to reduce reoffending, one Scottish project has found. By Jackie Cosh

Project details

Project name: Families Affected by Imprisonment (Fabi).

Aims and objectives: Helping to reduce offending behaviour by strengthening ties between offenders and their families

Numbers of service users: In 2010-11 some 138 families and 258 children were helped.

Cost of project: In 2010-11 the project cost £295,812.

Timescale: Began in 2008.

Funding: The Robertson Trust funded the pilot and gave the Glasgow project three years of funding. In 2010-11 50% of the funding came from trusts and foundations and 50% from Criminal Justice Authorities.

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How Families Affected by Imprisonment help maintain family links

When a parent is sent to prison one of the first casualties is their relationship with their family, says the project manager of Circle Scotland’s Families Affected By Imprisonment (Fabi) programme, Marina Shaw (pictured above, centre).

The project was set up in August 2008, and was based on the charity’s experience of working with disadvantaged families which suggested that parents, particularly mothers, wanted planned support before they left prison and “someone to walk alongside them” when they were released.

“Many women are imprisoned for low level crimes,” Shaw says. “It is easy to get into debt, and often this results in them losing their house and children. How do you get your life back?”

Offenders are recruited to the project as soon as they enter prison. At HMP Cornton Vale, the only women’s prison in Scotland, a representative speaks at induction days to let the women know Fabi is there and willing to engage with them.

“The fact that people speak to us shows they want to change. We want to hear people say – ‘I don’t want to come back’, to know that the person is motivated. If they invest in themselves we will invest in them. People do gloss over things; we expect them only to reveal a bit about themselves at the start.”

Regular visits are made to both the prisoner and their family, says Shaw: “We encourage families to vent their anger before the person is released so they are not dealing with it on their return. How quickly would you walk out of the door if that was the welcome? It is necessary to recognise that people will be angry. If you don’t recognise disappointment, you miss the beat.”

In the first year of the project, 38 women were helped, none of whom returned to prison, according to a Robertson Trust evaluation in April 2010. Since then numbers have increased and last year Fabi worked with 138 women.

On release, Fabi works hard to tackle stigma. “Once someone has left prison they are no longer a prisoner. Continuing to use the word prisoner just helps the revolving door,” Shaw says.

“But we do discuss actions and consequences. We get them to pause for thought. If they have had a fight with their neighbour, we get them to think about the cause. Because we are the voluntary sector they engage with us more. But we can’t do it in isolation. Some need or want methadone prescriptions and have no GP. We can’t pretend that drug addiction can be overcome simply by getting a new life. We will go to alcohol and drug support meetings with them. We have also supported people by going to parents’ evenings.”

Securing funding has been the biggest hurdle but Shaw says Fabi has learned from its mistakes.

The average length of time spent with each client is a year. “We assess and move them forward. If you create dependency you are doing it wrong and it is not hard to make the break if you do it properly. From the start we let them know that we have a job to do.”

The private prison HMP Addiewell requested Fabi services soon after opening and the charity now has a full-time worker based there, working with fathers. Two years ago HMP Greenock made a similar request and the service is now available in three Scottish prisons.

The team is made up of 10 support workers based in different localities throughout central Scotland. But no matter how good the team is, the responsibility for lives being changed is put on to parents themselves. “The women need to be motivated to help themselves as they have a long road to climb. It is about judging when the time is right because it is a huge investment in time for everyone concerned,” Shaw says.

Case study: ‘Fabi helped me keep my spirits up’

Andrew has recently been in prison for drug dealing. He has two young children.

“I was ripped away from my family and this was the deciding factor to change. Being taken away from your kids is the worst thing in the world.

But getting busted was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was an eye opener and my girlfriend told me that if I ever went back to prison that would be us finished.

My Fabi support worker, Graeme, would travel to pick up my girlfriend and baby on his day off and take them to visit me. He also helped my ex-wife. I don’t know how to describe it, having that time together.

At first my girlfriend was sceptical but she met Graeme and felt comfortable with him. Graeme took time off from his own family to help me and I can’t thank him enough. It took him a good few hours on a Saturday or Sunday.

When you get out you don’t know where your place is in the home, or where you should be in the family unit. It is a reality check.

Graeme helped me apply for benefits. I had a period of two months where I wasn’t working and he would always seem to text or phone me when I felt down and helped keep my spirits up. I needed someone there to pat me on the shoulder and say that everything would be fine.

Things are now looking good. I am doing well in my job and am happy with work and family life. Everything happens for a reason but there’s no return to prison for me.

Tips for practitioners when working with offenders and families:

● Talk and work with families in their homes, not in an office.

● Build up specialist knowledge within a team around children and family support work, the criminal justice system and substance misuse. This is invaluable.

● Look for people’s strengths. Encourage them to use these strengths to move forward.

● Building a good relationship with the prison encourages people to want to work with you.

● Motivation is everything – people need to want to change and believe you can help them do so.

● Seek advice if you need to – we’re happy to help.

Source: Families Affected By Imprisonment

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