How Fathers’ Story Week helps dads in prison reach out to their children

21 July 2011

Kate Hendry, Offender Lecturer, The Learning Centre, HMP Barlinnie Glasgow, writes:

Seven dads, six mums, one granny and eleven children reading stories and eating cakes – a happy afternoon to celebrate fathers’ day and encourage reading. But this event was especially important for these fathers and their children. In the room where they meet the tables and chairs are bolted to the floor, the doors are locked, their every movement is watched. This is Barlinnie prison in Glasgow, home to some 1500 short-term prisoners, including our seven dads.

Prisoners at Barlinnie are allowed 3 visits a month, each lasting no more than 40 minutes. Visitors are thoroughly searched and prisoners are not allowed to sit next to their visitors, including their children. Many dads in prison choose not to see their children so as to protect them from the experience of the visit room. So this visit, for Fathers’ Story Week, was something special and by the nerves amongst the men and the excitement amongst the children you could tell the experience was rare.

Six weeks ago we asked ten prisoners if they would like to be involved in Fathers’ Story Week. Some of the men we approached were already involved in a positive parenting programme run by the family contact officers at Barlinnie, so they saw the project as a chance to further strengthen family bonds.

At the start of the project, each dad sent an age-appropriate book to their child or children, along with a letter explaining Fathers’ Story Week and inviting their family to the visit. The books had the father-child relationship as their central theme. Books included My Dad by Anthony Browne, Daddy on the Moon by Cressida Cowell, Arthur and the 1001 Dads by Marc Brown and Danny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.

The dads came to the Learning Centre at Barlinnie to make picture books as a gift to give to their children at the visit. In preparation they read many picture books and discussed the kind of story they wanted to write for their children. Some chose to recreate happy family memories – a trip to the zoo, an adventure with a much-loved dog, a long-awaited reward for helping Mum with the housework. Others chose to use the story as a chance to explain their absence – and promise to return. Each dad illustrated their stories. Those with babies used differently textured materials to augment the illustrations. The dads had only two classes a week. Some had only one class, if they were working or involved in other courses. They all showed great dedication to their books, working on them in their cells and helping each other when they ran short of time.

The visit was an enormous success – it was a warm, happy and relaxed event. Dads sat with their children on their laps – from big seven year olds to babies – and read them stories. Just like ordinary dads do. Just like they want to do when they are released from prison. And this gets to the heart of what a project like this hopes to achieve. There’s no doubt that these men are in prison for a reason – they’ve committed crimes and their lifestyles outside have had negative impacts on their children in some way. But in this project they are able to be good dads, to put positive parenting into practice, to be their best selves.

After a while chatting together, reading and eating the party food on offer, the kids were invited to join two librarians from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow for a story telling and play session. They were all soon happily occupied colouring in spotty monsters, cutting and gluing them into mini monster figures. One asked if his dad could help. Then another wanted her dad too. Soon all the dads were sitting on the tiny chairs, scissors or glue in hand, helping out.

These dads are all committed to being better parents. But the happy faces of this visit cannot conceal the realities of life outside, as well as inside. A lot of children with a parent in prison have chaotic, difficult home lives. Some prisoners weren’t able to complete the project and join the visit. One fell out with his partner half way through. Another prisoner, desperate to see his son for the first time in 14 months, was unable to persuade his ex-wife to come.

For some of the dads it is only a matter of weeks till they will see their children again. Others will have a longer wait. Children, with less ability to distinguish between weeks, months and years, clearly struggle with separation. The repeated reunion and parting of visits is undoubtedly painful. It’s another reason why many prisoners choose not to allow their children to visit at all. Relationships between prisoners and their partners and families are often under immense strain and projects like this can help them to keep going. One little girl cried when her dad was taken away at the end of the visit.

The project helped to sustain relationships by giving prisoners the chance to make something tangible for their children. After the visit, one prisoner said ‘it was good to have something to share with my children that was positive.’ Another agreed that the project had let him ‘do something for my kids.’ Most prisoners feel strongly that their families are suffering unfairly for their mistakes. They feel helpless, that they can’t support their families practically or emotionally from prison. Fathers’ Story Week enabled them to give something back. Even the dad who hadn’t been able to come to the visit still found the project valuable: ‘It helped my son to communicate better with me.’ Whereas normally phone calls consisted of his questions and his son’s minimal answers, now they had something shared to talk about and a good read to discuss.

For more information, contact Kate Hendry by email or phone her on 0141 770 2069.

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