Give a Book recently attended the Family Visit Day presentation for Fathers Inside at a maximum security prison. Fathers Inside is a programme developed over many years by the excellent organisation Safe Ground. Fathers Inside has now been running in this prison for 5 years, thanks to essential support from the No 1 Governor who had seen the programme work in other prisons.
How does it work? 14-20 prisoners join the Fathers Inside course and with the help of external tutors and prison Family Support Workers, they work intensively—6 hours a day—over a 9 week period. The groupness of the group is important– they always work in a circle to encourage group feeling and confidence, and participants can also share their skills. They will be working through drama to explore quite what it means to be a parent in prison. The programme is designed to help strengthen and enlighten the members’ relationship with their children. With the tools of drama, role-play and re-enactment the group learns about childhood development—what it’s like to be both child or adult—including things you think you know like into how long the ‘other side’ sleeps. It’s all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, realising the different needs of families and offender, putting yourself in other situations and through that helping each other. The group also learns about the importance of a child’s education. And crucially they learn the vital part communication and honesty plays with kids.
The group uses drama and re-enactment to explore these themes: some classics and some new minted– The Selfish Giant, the moving tale by Oscar Wilde was acted out, as was a dramatised Aesop’s Fable; there was an enacted honest phone call, and a dramatisation of a tense visit day showing the difficulties encountered by both sides under the cosh of time and the eye of the surroundings. In these playlets they are also dramatising the importance of knowing right from wrong.
The group clearly gains from working together, from listening, learning trust and pride. The success of the programme relies not only on the hard work of the men, the prison staff and educators but also, valuably, on peer mentoring from those who have benefited from the programme before.
At the end of the 9-week course the group performs a presentation of their work before an audience of family and children. On this occasion we were also treated to a version of Rihanna’s ‘Work’ performed with gusto by the nieces of a group member. At the end of the performance group members are presented with a certificate. It was an affecting occasion—fuelled by what one can only call the complete conviction of all the participants. Talking to both group members and staff afterwards it was obvious how much all sides benefit from this excellent and imaginative programme. There is ample solid evaluative evidence to support this too.
What has Give a Book got to do with it? We give book bags for the prisoners to share with their families at the presentation. One 4 year old soul we met on the occasion seemed particularly content– which just about makes Give a Book’s day.
Safe Ground was founded in 1993 by Antonia Rubinstein and Polly Freeman, both of whom had background in education, drama and family dynamics. Originally, Safe Ground’s work was much more rooted in theatre; their first venture was a production of The Tempest at HMYOI Huntercombe followed by The Doors, an original play inspired by Gulliver’s Travels and developed by prisoners from HMYOI Feltham. In the late 1990s, the Home Office invited Safe Ground to design a family relationships programme for use across the English and Welsh male prison estate. They continue to evolve.
This year marks Safe Ground’s 21st birthday and we wish them many happy returns for their wonderful work.