Playgroup fathers to take children into jail

Thomas Lynch and David Marshall, who set up the network to encourage men to take a more active role in parenting. Picture: Greg Macvean
Thomas Lynch and David Marshall, who set up the network to encourage men to take a more active role in parenting. Picture: Greg Macvean
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A NETWORK of playgroups run by fathers for fathers is in talks to take their services to a Scottish jail in an attempt to strengthen the bond between male inmates and their children and reduce reoffending.

Dads Rock was formed in Edinburgh 16 months ago to encourage men to take a more active role in parenting. Now its founders Thomas Lynch and David Marshall want to expand the play sessions – which involve games, songs and story time – into Edinburgh Prison where they hope dads who would otherwise have very little time with their children will benefit from close contact in a nurturing environment.

The pair, who are in the process of applying for funding through the Robertson Trust and the Big Lottery Fund, are to meet deputy governor Andy Hodge and operations director Derek McLeod next month to discuss the proposals which could see the playgroup operate as often as once a week in the jail.

Although the venture is at an early stage, it is understood it would fit in with the Scottish Prison Service’s commitment to fostering inmates’ links with their families – a move that studies show significantly reduces the chances of reoffending.

Lynch, a HR consultant with Lloyds Bank, who has worked as a volunteer since leaving school and spent nine years as a counsellor for the Samaritans, said he was inspired to set up the prison project after attending a conference on fatherhood run by Children in Scotland.

“At the conference, Nancy Loucks, chief executive of Families Outside, [a charity which works to support the families of people involved in the criminal justice system] told us 50 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their children during their time in custody,” he said.“That seemed such a shocking statistic and we wondered what could be done to improve the situation. The principle behind our playgroups has always been that fathers are incredibly important and yet there are few initiatives which help men build up their confidence as parents. If fathers in prison had somewhere they could not only bond with their children, but do so in a supportive environment, then they would have a more positive experience of parenting.”

Lynch said he hoped he would be allowed to take his own son in so prisoners could watch them interacting. “It’s all about mirroring behaviour, about saying ‘this is the way to be with your kids’. And the advantage of our playgroups is that those involved could continue attending them on the outside after they’ve served their sentence.”

The Scottish Government’s National Parenting Strategy places an emphasis on fathers, saying those who play an active role in their children’s upbringing “make a real and practical difference”. Yet opportunities for male prisoners to spend quality time with their children at the country’s jails are limited.

Although under-16s are allowed to come to the prison during regular visits, the experience can be daunting. Most prisons hold family days – more relaxed, expanded visits – and “bonding” visits, while the Scottish Pre-School Play Association runs a project for fathers in Dumfries Prison and the Triple P programme – a parenting programme used across the globe – has been offered in Barlinnie.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Prison Service confirmed a meeting with Dads Rock – which now runs playgroups in Edinburgh and Dunfermline – had been set up, and said it was committed to working with families, community and partners to maintain meaningful contact throughout an offender’s time in custody.

“The SPS welomes interest from any external agency wishing to support prisoners and their families. Establishing any new service is a lengthy process and includes a careful assessment of the potential benefits,” she said.

Edinburgh Prison has a centre outside the jail run by the Salvation Army where families can meet and talk to social workers prior to the visit itself. The visits room inside the jail has recently been refurbished to make it more child-friendly and a recent donation of £500 has been spent on toys.

But a homework club that was piloted in the jail and allowed fathers to help their children with their schoolwork, could not be introduced long-term because of a lack of funding, although staff are hoping that will change in the future.

“Fathers should not be considered to be optional extras, but instead a core component of development, with research suggesting good father/child relationships lead to less substance abuse, less incarceration and increased educational attainment,” a spokesperson for Children in Scotland said.

“Moves to increase, improve and facilitate involvement for those who find it difficult to participate in their child’s life, or are physically unable due to geographical issues or even incarceration, should – where appropriate and in the best interest of the child – be welcomed.”

Loucks said research showed prisoners who kept family ties were up to six times less likely to reoffend. “It is very easy for fathers in prison to become isolated from their children. Maintaining that bond is important for them and for society,” she said.

“It is also important for the children, as we know the children of prisoners are up to three times more likely to suffer mental health problems.”

Twitter: @DaniGaravalli1