Soft side of hard men

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Stephen Wade talks to an advocate of the family learning programme, who works with inmates in the Wolds prison

Sandy Watson talks with enthusiasm about her work; every word she finds to explain what she plans and produces inside the walls of Wolds prison in East Yorkshire is expressed with assurance.

She and her team work hard to make good fathers out of men who have, for whatever reason, never known a family life or sometimes made mistakes that cause rifts.

In the events and activities Ms Watson produces, there are no rifts. It's all about communication and learning. She has established regular family days in which the men can take part in learning, loving and sharing. In many cases they have to learn those things.

In Monday morning sessions, for instance, there will be time to face up to what it means to be a dad in prison, and for the men to express what they want to achieve to put things right. These Mondays involve the man and his partner, with their young children, playing and joining in with creative fun.

Ms Watson is very direct and knows what her role is: "My aim is to provide a normal environment in an abnormal environment," she says. Sometimes, doing normal things means basic childcare: "Dads are encouraged to change nappies," she says, pointing out that for many of them it might be the first time.

In the family learning session, the atmosphere is very relaxed. Everyone joins in the child-centred activities. But it is not too casual - the men are given assignments, along with their partners. These will often be about issues linked to parenting. Ms Watson recalls one man who reported that he spent all his phone calls one week talking about homework.

Ms Watson describes the work in a low-key way, as if this tough challenge is as easy as making a cup of tea. "My colleagues and I are there to facilitate a good visit. We're not a creche or a baby-sitting service."

For the duration of the visit, the family unit stays together. The last event of the session is sharing books. Either a father reads to a child or vice versa. The world of the family is brought into the male world of sport talk, jokes and banter.

There is no guarantee the families will get involved. Staff can only set an event and wait to see if prisoners' partners contact the Wolds.

Ms Watson has been doing the work for almost six years. It was an extension of what she did already, with her own family, and she has no doubt about what she and her team are aiming to do. "We have so many men who have not had a good experience of family life, and we try to provide a good role model."

The work is being validated far beyond the world of education: the National Foundation for Educational Research came to do a follow-up study, and found that Ms Watson's work had played a significant part in reducing recidivism in the men who had been involved in her programmes.

Sometimes, the sidelights on weekly activities provide the most significant insights, as in the time when Watson praised a little girl doing a jigsaw.

The father saw the immediate result of that encouragement and told Ms Watson that he had learned a powerful truth. He had never been taught the importance of such words.

Prison life can easily breed a macho culture that might look down on these activities, but not in the Wolds. The general view of officers and inmates is that it is valuable work. The secret is to work in an informal way, and "see the confidence grow". The men inside often have a real desire to be good parents and want to know how that is defined.

There are "Lifer Days", too. Here, the whole day is given over to activities with the prisoner, his partner and children, but there are also talks by professionals working in the prison. This is an effective way to let family members know what life is like inside. And everyone involved eats lunch together.

What drives Ms Watson and her colleagues? "You know that you can affect people's lives, and that's thrilling," she says. "You see people who have shifted their position on the world of women - something unknown to them in many cases."

Future plans include an initiative to help the prisoner return to his family home where communication has broken down between him and his parents. She has also recently been learning how to edit recordings for the Storybook Dads scheme, in which fathers read and record stories for their children.

The aim of the family learning programme is to help with rehabilitation; it is not just an extra prison visit. The programme has a clear structure to it and both the inmate and partner have assignments to do for homework which lead to accreditation.

There is an emphasis on promoting reading, and the afternoon is centred around the needs of the child. The staff are there to give advice on basic childcare, or sometimes act as mediators - it is useful to have a neutral person who can see things from both points of view.

There are many issues that need talking through before the inmate goes home - he thinks he is going back to the way things were, but the partner has moved on. Ms Watson and her colleagues try to discuss these issues with him. Books such as Daddy's Working Away, are given out, and there is a video produced by Leeds Animation called It's Good to be Home. These help the families to prepare for the return home.

The NFER study explains why all this is worthwhile: "The findings of this evaluation... point to family learning as a meaningful and worthwhile activity, one which may ultimately play a part in minimising the risk of re-offending."

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