Sarah Roberts Blog – Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship

Guidance teacher Sarah Roberts is currently undertaking a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship in Australia and America looking at the role of schools in supported families affected by imprisonment. On her return, Sarah will write a report for Families Outside with recommendations for the development of practice in Scotland.

Here is some excerpt from Sarah’s blog:

Shining from the inside out

I had woken up at 5:30am for the drive fromSydneytoCanberraso was still sleepy and a bit groggy on arrival at the Alexander Maconochie Centre, a newCanberraprison built upon the principals of restorative justice. Shine for Kids is based in the prison and I had been invited to join them for one of their Child / Parent Activity Days. Held throughout the year in the holidays (so that children don’t have to miss school), what’s unique about these days is that they are specifically for the inmates and their children – other family members and carers don’t attend – giving them a stretch of four hours together where they can play and interact in a more “normal” environment.

On this particular Monday there were 15 children in the waiting area, ranging in age from 1 to 12, most with their mothers, some with grandparents. As the children were handed over to Shine staff and volunteers there were tears and anxious looks as we then made our way through security, past a (thankfully very placid) sniffer dog. I was handed a sleeping baby, a Shine member of staff a crying toddler, and we struggled not only to take off (one-handed!) our own necklaces, belts, shoes and other items that would set off alarms, but also to help the other children do the same. Next came the iris-scanner and again negotiating everyone through was no easy task.

As we stood in a holding area waiting to meet the 7 fathers who had signed up for today’s programme my mind raced with questions: Is this too traumatic for the children? Is it fair on them? Do they want to even be here? And what about the fathers – is it really worth all this effort?

The baby I was holding woke up just as the doors opened and she stretched her arms out to her dad as her two older sisters clambered all over him, each one desperate for the first cuddle. I looked round the room at similar reunions taking place and felt my questions fading as I took in the scene before me. The Shine staff had been in earlier and had set up the room in such a way that there were several play areas (with a wide range of good and interesting toys for all ages) and each little family unit had gathered in one of these areas. There was a craft table at the far end for face-painting and drawing, and the room backed onto a grassed courtyard with a slide and climbing frame as well as plenty of room for a game of cricket.

Snacks were provided as fathers and children began playing, talking and just enjoying being with one another. The Shine staff had an amazing ability to be there and yet not there at the same time – encouraging parents and children into play activities if necessary and then stepping back, allowing the relationships to develop naturally. Watching these fathers undertaking everyday parenting tasks (giving a bottle, wiping a messy face, playing a ballgame) was one of the moving sights I have experienced. For four hours, I realised, these were not prisoners, they were dads spending time with their children. And for the children, other than the two prison officers in uniform (who also watched on from a respectful distance), there was very little to remind them that they were in a prison.

Lunch was a BBQ of sausages and chicken cooked by the two oldest boys and their dad and again I was struck by what a unique opportunity this was for that family. As they cooked they chatted, laughed and teased one another: the father able to teach his sons a skill and the boys seeing their dad as someone with so much to give. As we ate out in the sunshine I again felt moved as it dawned on me that eating together is such a vital ingredient in family life and just wouldn’t be possible without programmes like this.

All of the fathers I spoke to were extremely grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Child / Parent Activity Day. They appreciated the longer period of time with their children, the fact that they could build a relationship with them on their own and just enjoyed doing the things that parents do. Prison officers too could see the difference it made to inmates – they were calmer after such extended contact with their children and the reduction in reoffending that comes from strong family links is well documented.

And the children? They just loved every minute of it – cuddles and stories, playing hide and seek, building towers, bowling dad out in cricket – there was a buzz of family fun throughout the day. As we made our way back through security the children seemed different to me – relaxed, happy and at ease. I listened as one boy said to his brother, “Wasn’t that the best time we’ve had with dad? I hope we get to do it again soon!” And as he spoke he shone – from the inside out.

Jesus on the Inside

I met Jesus in prison today. He is serving a two year sentence in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, one of the largest correctional facilities in the US. Jesus has three children; two of high school age who know that he is in jail and one pre-schooler from another relationship who has been told that “daddy is working away”, though she may well have picked up bits and pieces of information and probably knows more than her parents think she does.

I was invited to join Jesus and his fellow inmates for an Inside Out Dad parenting class run by PB&J (Peanut Butter & Jelly), a non-profit organisation supporting children and families affected by imprisonment here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Today’s topic is the role of spirituality in family relationships so of course I am particularly interested to hear what Jesus has to say on this.

The group is voluntary and meets for two and a half hours twice weekly over a period of ten weeks. This session’s group comprises ten men, all parents and all clad from head to toe in bright orange suits. They meet in a small, windowless room, the only ‘decor’ a wall-mounted whiteboard from which the men can take notes. But today there is no note taking because the discussion just keeps on flowing.

I am both moved and amazed at the depth of conversation taking place as each one shares his story. “I’m in a position right now where all I have is to put my faith in God because, you know, when it comes to my kids my hands are tied”, a large, tattooed man says. Another continues, “Being here for me is about soul searching, finding myself, being thankful for all the good things in my life… I’m learning to be at peace with myself.”

Each one speaks of transformation during his time in prison and each of them expresses concern and anxiety about being released: “In here it’s easy, it’s when I get out – that’s when my faith and spirituality will be tested.” And someone else adds: “I’m glad I’m in here for a while. I want to get drug free and I can do that in here. But how do I tell my bros and family on the outside that I don’t want to get into all that again?”

At this point the men offer advice, support and encouragement and for good reason; recidivism rates here are high and a lot of these men have been in and out of prison several times. This is their first parenting programme, however, and studies show that meaningful family ties can help to significantly reduce re-offending. As well as this type of group work, PB&J offers one to one support to each of the participants, helping them to prepare for release by having the necessary supports in place. This includes contacting schools and building up relationships with their children’s teachers.

PB&J has also developed video technology in prisons and in schools so that parents in prison can meet teachers and be engaged in their children’s education. At present only on offer in a limited number of schools due to funding, it is something that really appeals to Jesus: “I would love to have copies of my daughters’ academic achievements”, he tells me, “and if I had contact with the school counsellor it would help to make sure that they are ok and getting the support they need. I’m still their dad, you know.”

As the class draws to an end I can’t decide if I feel despair or hope. Programmes like Inside Out Dad are excellent but the challenges of life on the outside are great and I wonder how many of these men will manage to stay out of the criminal justice system. I am interrupted in my thoughts by Jesus as he summarises today’s session: “God is love”, he says, “and if you have love that’s the main thing.” Probably best to let Jesus have the last word.

Welcome Back

Edward is 28, has been in and out of prison 6 times in his life and has recently been released after serving a 5 year sentence. I am unsure of the exact details of his crime but I do know that a gun was involved. And he’s offering me a lift. There’s no other way I will make my next meeting (on the other side of Albuquerque) if I say no to Edward’s offer but I have only spent a couple of hours with him as part of a post-release anger management programme and he has talked a lot about his anger during the session.

For some reason I hear myself saying yes to his kind offer and as I get into his truck I push away the voice on my shoulder warning me not taking lifts from strangers, far less a known criminal. Having worked with teenagers for several years I know that a car journey often provides a great way of engaging people in telling their story. You don’t have to make eye contact and there’s a strange kind of freedom in being strapped into a small space together.

So I ask Edward about his life and as he starts talking, right back at childhood, I find myself relaxing and feeling glad that our journey will take a good 30 minutes. His father was a violent man who was in and out of prison and Edward never knew how his dad would react from one day to the next; whether he would be on the receiving end of a “well done, son” slap on the back or, more often, a punch in the face. Edward also watched his mother being beaten and the home was a tense, unsafe environment to grow up in.

When Edward was 18 his dad committed suicide, probably as the result of an undiagnosed, and certainly untreated, mental health problem which had underpinned his violent and unpredictable behaviour. This for Edward was a turning point. Feeling a strange mix of relief and grief, the pain of all that he had experienced led him to get involved in a local gang. “My homies were like the family I never had” he tells me, referring to his fellow gang members.  And unfortunately for Edward this group of homies were into drugs.

Here follows a familiar story: Edward dropped out of school (“I wasn’t a good student and no one really missed me”), and started committing crimes in order to feed his drug habit. He served his first prison sentence at 18. In between periods of imprisonment Edward met a girl, fell in love and fathered two children who are now 6 and 8. Despite adoring his children he couldn’t kick his drug habit nor the criminal behaviour (itself a kind of addiction according to Edward) and this eventually led to him serving the sentence which he has just completed.

The whole time we are talking Edward has a song which he wrote while in prison playing on a continuous loop through his iPod. It’s about his dad’s suicide and then Edward’s own life. He has called it Gone and it expresses regret about all that has happened and offers an apology to his children and a promise that things will be different from now on. And listening to his story and hearing about how the in-prison PB&J parenting programme provided an opportunity to rebuild a relationship with his son and daughter, I feel optimistic for Edward. He knows that he has a long way still to go but he has also learned that he can be a good father to his children.

As we arrive at my destination Edward tells me about a new school programme that he has been invited to participate in. After a period of training he will be able to visit local schools and tell his story, encouraging young people to seek help rather than getting into drugs and crime. Edward is clearly excited and I can’t help wondering if this initiative had been around when he was at school whether his own story might have taken a whole different turn. We say our goodbyes and I realise that I haven’t had a lift from an ex-criminal but rather from a returning citizen. Welcome back, Edward!

Virtually There

There’s a flurry of pink darting down the corridor as Shania (9) and Shanika* (11), sisters as indistinguishable as their names, rush to see who can get to mom first. Their mother is serving a five year sentence in Albion Correctional Facility, about 9 hours drive away, but the girls have only travelled 45 minutes on the subway today. That’s because they are “TeleVisiting” – interacting with and chatting to mom using video conferencing technology which connects the prison in the north east of the country to the Osborne Association’sBrooklynoffice.

Offering a wide range of services, the Osborne Association supports families affected by imprisonment throughout the State ofNew York. TeleVisits are available to individuals who complete an in-prison parenting programme: there’s a dedicated member of staff whose role it is to make sure that mothers (and soon to be extended to fathers) are ready for such visits, as well as a help sheet written by mothers in prison to advise those new to TeleVisiting on what to expect and how best to interact with children of different ages. While an older child might sit and talk, younger ones get fidgety quickly so both rooms are equipped with the same toys and books to facilitate interactive play.

Even the layout of the rooms is similar: from the brightly coloured sofa and cushions to the children’s drawings on the wall, it is all set up to feel like mother and child are in the same room. And with a large screen projecting a good quality picture and decent sound, they virtually are.

Shania and Shanika each spend twenty minutes alone with mom and at the end of the session they all talk together for around ten minutes. There’s a prison worker in the room with their mother and an Osborne member of staff with the girls but neither of these adults is seen on screen and they would only intervene if necessary; to give a mother an idea for a game or to cajole a reluctant toddler for example. For Shania and Shankia there is no need for any such guidance as they are both happy to chat away with mom.

I ask each of them what they talk about. “School”, they tell me. “I’m learning aboutBrazil”, Shania goes on to say, “and I’m going to tell mom that it’s the largest country inSouth America. I tell her about my friends too.” Shanika adds, “It’s not the same as being with her and touching her but at least we can talk.” She then giggles as she tells me, “Mom got a new hair cut the last time we did a Televisit and we could see what it looks like.”

TeleVisiting should of course never be a replacement for face to face meetings but it is an excellent way of supplementing visits and facilitating contact when long distances make trips to prison difficult. For Shania and Shanika these TeleVisits are essential. They last saw their mother in person over 2 years ago and may only be able to go to the prison once more before she is released because the family simply cannot afford the cost of transportation and accommodation for that kind of journey. With TeleVisits they normally see their mother 2 to 3 times a month which means they can develop and maintain a meaningful and positive relationship with her.

InNew YorkStatealone there are over 100,000 children just like Shania and Shanika with a parent in prison and TeleVisiting is one way of helping them cope with their sense of loss and separation. Because of the stigma and trauma that often come with having a parent in prison, these children are vulnerable at school and many need additional support to reach their academic potential. With this in mind the Osborne Association is hoping that TeleVisiting might soon be extended to teachers so that incarcerated parents can meet their children’s educators. I am curious to know what Shania and Shanika would make of this. “That’d be cool”, Shanika responds, “and maybe then some teachers wouldn’t be so hard on us.” She quickly adds, “My teacher’s really nice but I know some who can be mean if they know you have a parent in prison.”

Shanika’s optimism is as infectious as her beaming smile and I imagine a scene in which her mother can chat with her daughters’ teachers about their progress; celebrating success and sharing concerns. It will take time and teacher training before this becomes routinely available but I for one look forward to the day when teachers, parents in prison and their children can say “we’re virtually there.”

* Names have been changed

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