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Voices From Behind Bars

Are justice and compassion with offenders mutually exclusive? Chris Corlett thinks not. For this second part of our “Dads in Prison” feature he asked two long-term inmates about what it feels like to be a dad “inside”.

So we know the statistics: the majority of people currently in prison in New Zealand are fathers, and we know that a child whose dad ends up in prison is far more likely to end up there as well later on in life.

Those children may be condemned to a life of crime long before they are even aware that there may be alternatives. Choice cannot be the only factor which determines whether someone will turn to crime; people do not simply choose to become outcasts and to spend the majority of their lives behind bars.

It is simply not good enough to deny social factors, and it is unforgivable to allow the children of prisoners to fall into the same traps as their parents.

Politically, it may be popular and convenient (and, more to the point, cheap) to treat offenders as inherently “bad” people who should be locked away from the rest of “good” society without taking social factors into account, but it does nothing to break the chain of inter-generational offending.

Perhaps there is too much discussion of the moral rights and wrongs of the criminal justice system, and not enough listening to the people who are actually trapped in it.

We hear what politicians think and, to a regrettably lesser degree, we hear what victims of crime think. But we never seem to hear from the offenders themselves. Maybe we want to forget that they are people, too, with hopes, dreams, and regrets. And, frequently, with children.

If they are part of the problem, then offenders are also part of the solution. We need to hear them. We need to know how it feels to be a prisoner. How does it feel to be locked away from your kids?

So I set out to hear the views of some of those dads, who are locked up. It was difficult to gain access to prisoners for this purpose; rightly or wrongly prisoners are very much denied a voice, even though listening to their frustrations is probably a very constructive approach to reducing offending.

Nevertheless, I was able to briefly interview two inmate fathers. Both serving lengthy sentences in one of New Zealand’s high security jails. Their identities are, of course, protected (we shall randomly call them John and Corey).

I was interested to know whether offenders felt that courts paid any attention to the fact that they were fathers.I asked:

When you were sentenced, do you think the fact that you are a father was taken into account?

John: ‘No and yes. It was said I was a father. I feel it made no difference though.’

Corey: ‘Yeah. It’s mentioned, but men are seen as less of a major factor than women. The prison system caters for the needs of mothers, but men’s prisons don’t have anything for fathers.’

It’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons from these answers with other aspects of the Court system, where many fathers also feel disadvantaged, such as in the Family Court.

This feeling that fatherhood is not important was also applied to the attitudes of Prison Service staff who, it was quite emphatically felt, was not concerned with the parental relationships of inmates:

Do you feel that prison staff are sensitive to the fact that you are a dad?

John: ‘No! There’s nothing else to say.’

Corey: ‘They aren’t employed to be sensitive to families. My daughter was three years old and an officer searched her to find out what she had in her pockets and it freaked her out. No, they aren’t sensitive.’

It was interesting to note how the experience of prison varied between inmates. Clearly, to a large degree, it is subjective, and depends not only upon the attitude adopted by the inmate towards imprisonment, but also by the quality of the staff and management of the particular prison.

Asking if there are parenting courses available in prison, John thought they were, while Corey could only vaguely recall that there had been talk about it at some stage.

I wondered whether this reflected a lack of resources (in that the course was not made available to all fathers), or whether it was just that the courses aren’t widely known of amongst prison dads.

Whatever the case, it was felt that more could be done, often simple things, to make fatherhood easier from inside prison, and to provide a better environment for kids to visit.

From your point of view as a parent, how could prison be improved?

John: ‘There needs to be more things for Dads and their kids to do when they visit.’

Corey: ‘I think there should be weekly visits, and family service people should be able to monitor them, to ensure the kids wellbeing.’

John: ‘Yeah, its no good when kids come to visit and they see inappropriate behaviour from other inmates’.

One thing was clear. Prison dads do care. Not just about the effect of imprisonment on themselves but also how their kids cope with having a dad on the inside:

Do you feel that being forcibly separated from your kids will affect you?

Corey: ‘Yes of course. And when you’ve been separated from them for years you can’t bridge that gap in their lives or your life.’

John: ‘You miss out on them growing up. It’s hard.’

Do your kids know that you are in prison?

John: ‘Yeah. They don’t like it.’

Corey: ‘Mine know as well. I don’t know how they feel about it. What worries me is the endless bombardment that they might get from other kids who know where I am. It would be truly harsh, I imagine.’

Both Dads seemed frustrated at the lack of frequency of visits from their children, and the hostile environment, seen to be caused by other prisoners as well as prison staff, which their children had to face on entering a prison.

How often do you get to see them?

Corey: Never. I don’t let them come here. Not since my daughter got searched that time.

John: I get to see mine about once a month. But, like I said, it’s not easy because of the way some of the other inmates behave.

Again, I was surprised at how relatively easy one interviewee seemed to find it to keep in touch with his children, in comparison to his fellow prisoner, who found it extremely difficult, to the extent that he was reliant on his children’s mother to keep him in contact.

How else do you stay in touch with them?

John: I write to them a couple of times a year and send cards on their birthdays. Sometimes they send me photos. Plus I get to speak to them on the phone a couple of times a week. I can’t send them presents though.

Corey: I don’t get to do any of those things. Prison is a major destroyer of those kinds of contact. The only way I have any contact with my kids is when their mother tells me what’s happening in their lives.

Both dads obviously regretted ending up in prison, away from his kids. Both wished there had been another way.

Knowing now what its like being locked away from your children, would it make you think twice about committing crimes?

John: Yes it would.

Corey: Me too. In the end we are all responsible for own actions.

In the end, the dads were sceptical about whether being sent to prison would ultimately improve them as a parent:

Corey: I don’t mean to be rude, but if you think prison can make you a better person in any way at all then your head must be further up there than you realise!

John: I suppose in some ways it might make me a better father. I don’t know. It’s hard to have any kind of influence over them when you’re in here.

Corey: I think that communities should start dealing with these things as well. We should look after each other instead of washing our hands of other people’s problems. Its no good just sending people to prison and ignoring their problems.

From these accounts I found it was impossible not to conclude that, on the whole, fatherhood is not treated as a priority in the criminal justice system.

Despite increased spending by the Department of Corrections on both family visiting facilities and parenting resources for inmates, it does not seem that, in reality, parenting from inside is getting any easier, either for dads or their kids.

The idea that offenders are somehow different to other parents and don’t care about their kids is clearly untrue. All dads love their children, and all children love their dads.

Society needs to recognise this, urgently. Kids do not need the stigma, heartache, and fear that comes with having a dad in prison; they need loving contact from their dads, and they need hope that there is a better alternative for them than prison.

And that hope can only be provided by dad himself.

Prison dads need help and respect.

Next: Teen Pregnancies Resolved

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