Britain’s biggest prison, HMP Parc, runs a groundbreaking reform programme reinforcing inmates’ links with their children to prevent re-offending. Channel 4 News has been given unprecedented access.
It’s not often you see a small child being frisked, pockets emptied and then circled silently by a drugs dog.
For four-year-old Reilly Gilbert, however, and his older brothers Arthur and Zach, this is now routine. One moment he’s in nursery, learning about the number ‘two’, the next he’s weaving his way through the heavy duty security apparatus of a Category B prison.
Such is life as the child of a prisoner.
Reilly’s father, Jonathan Gilbert, 46, is serving a 12 year sentence in HMP Parc, Bridgend, for his part in a multi-million pound mortgage fraud: “I am a disgrace to my former profession” the ex-solicitor tells Channel 4 News, “and I feel a disgrace as a father”.
Earlier, alongside 15 other inmates enrolled in a ‘Fathers Inside’ parenting class, he comes close to tears after a prison officer asks him to imagine life as a child whose father has left him.
Emotional self-scrutiny is positively encouraged in HMP Parc’s groundbreaking Family Intervention Unit (FIU), a designated 60-bed wing which is attracting increasing attention in penal reform circles.
“They have to accept that they’ve caused damage,” says Corin Morgan-Armstrong, head of Parc’s Family Interventions programme “if they’re going to repair it”.
(Corin Morgan-Armstrong, head of Parc’s Family Interventions programme)
The prisoners’ criminal backgrounds vary widely (from serious violence to drugs offences), but no sex offenders are admitted on the wing.
Every inmate in the FIU is a father and every cell door is flanked by a mission statement. Beneath one prisoner’s photo it reads: “I came to the FIU to:”… ” and the prisoner has written “have a closer relationship with my kids”.
The wing’s ubiquitous posters and murals reinforce core themes such as: “The family man does not put crime before his children, his family, his freedom”.
Large canvas paintings display winsome images of parents and children at play. One wall is strewn with paper butterflies bearing handwritten messages from the inmates’ children. One reads: “I hope Dady [sic] tickles me”.
It’s about “turning on the valve of empathy”, says Morgan-Armstrong, who has been running the unit for five years. Influenced by what he says is mounting evidence that prisoners’ families can play a pivotal role in reducing Britain’s chronic re-offending rates, he’s brought together a wide range of programmes designed to embed the family in the inmate’s rehabilitation.
Courses include ‘Fathers Inside’ and ‘Family Man’ (parenting skills); ‘Baby Steps’ (pre and post-natal advice including baby bathing tutorials); ‘Language & Play’ and ‘Learning Together’ clubs (where prisoners and children do schoolwork together).
The charity Barnardos is involved, as well as numerous other partner agencies including the Scouts and British Red Cross.
Is it working?
Morgan-Armstrong says fewer than a third of their 400 ‘graduates’ have gone on to re-offend (compared with a national rate exceeding 50 per cent), but he describes these figures as “anecdotal” at this stage.
In their Lottery-funded “Invisible Walls Wales” project which focuses on a smaller group of inmates within the unit, interim findings of one study show dramatically improved reconviction rates. It also shows marked improvements in outcomes (such as school attendance) for some of the prisoners’ children – a key aim of the wider programme.
Parc prison is not without its problems. Drug use levels in the prison are high. G4S, the private company which runs the prison, has itself been mired in controversy recently over its failings at Medway secure training centre. However, the family interventions programme at Parc has many admirers.
Inspectors have described the prison’s family work as “outstanding”.
The President of Malta is the latest in a long line of VIPs, including the Justice Secretary Michael Gove, to visit the unit (she wants to replicate the system in Malta). And Parc has become the first prison in the EU to achieve an ‘Investors in Families’ charter mark.
Jonathan Gilbert describes being admitted to Parc’s FIU after a spell in a London prison as “a godsend”. He says the emphasis placed on family ties at Parc has made a huge difference.
“We can still make a small impact on our children’s lives,” he says, “through the telephone, through writing, through the weekly visit for an hour – small things which work their way back to being something more sizeable”.
The sentiment is shared by other inmates on the wing.
In February David Cameron described the failure of the British prison system – with its cycle of reoffending – as “scandalous”.
He called for wholesale reform. Parc’s Family Interventions Unit has been operating for five years now, but it’s never gone mainstream. If the government is serious about a new era for prisons reform, will this emphasis on the role a family can play help shape that agenda?
Or will innovative programmes like this remain largely marginalised, reluctant bolt-ons to a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ which was supposed to take shape six years ago but which, in reality, has yet to happen.