Initiatives at Otago Corrections Facility (OCF) are helping dads in the prison maintain a connection with their families and build their parenting skills in preparation for release.
Father’s Day is a time for reflection for many prisoners. It is also a busy and particularly sad time for prisoners and their families.
“The majority of men in prison are parents,” says Prison Director Lyndal Miles. “The vast majority of these men will be returning to the community and their families and it makes sense for us to help them to maintain or build these connections while they are with us, and learn skills that will make them a better parent.
“These men are missing out on some of the milestones in their children’s lives. Being away from your family can be tough and more so when you are only able to see your family only once a week.”
Corrections’ Parenting Support Services for Prisoners is designed to help prisoners who aspire to be a person of importance in the life of a child. They focus on those prisoners who see their role as a parent/caregiver as a priority.
“A large proportion of the men we work with have had absent fathers or haven’t necessarily been exposed to what many in the community would call positive parent role modelling in their own upbringing. They are keen the lives of their children will be different,” says Lyndal.
Far from a main urban area and with 40% of prisoners from outside Otago, the prison has had to be particularly innovative about its parenting programmes
Tthe prison has a very busy phone and mail service which helps prisoners maintain and even build connections through communications with their families. Without access to computers, prisoners need to phone or write to their families. The prison has around 300-500 letters per week coming in and anywhere from 800-1500 letters going out per week. Families can also contact offenders using the prison email service which receives hundreds of emails each week.
OCF also has one of the busiest prisoner Audio Visual Link (AVL) services in New Zealand, facilitating around 15 family AVL ‘visits’ a week.
“AVL is especially important for maintaining contact with family/whanau. AVL is an option for prisoners who have been transferred to OCF from other areas, and to support prisoners reintegrating into their family to reconnect and prepare for release,” says Lyndal.
In partnership with the Methodist Mission, OCF was the first NZ prison to offer Storybook Dads, a programme where prisoners identify a story that will connect with their child and create a story pack including art, games and a video of them reading the bedtime story to send home to their family.
“Storybook Dads has been running at OCF since 2007 and is a highly successful and popular programme with our prison fathers,” says Gill Brown, Assistant Prison Director. “The programme runs for six sessions with up to ten participants at any time. Over the past 12 months around 34 fathers have completed the programme, sending special handmade story and game packs home to their families.”
The Skills for Dads programme is also available to most fathers while in prison. This programme is run across all prisons and teaches skills such as positive interaction.
"Absence from family is one of the hardest parts about being in prison and prisoners often say this is the most punishing part of a prison sentence,” says Lyndal Miles. “Our goal is to help make these men better parents.
“As a community we need to be very aware of the effect of absent fathers and poor parenting on children, look to the community we want to become, and ensure that the children don’t believe that they are the ones being punished.”