Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice



COMMENDEES 2011-12: Rita and Jacqueline, volunteers with the Mothers Union, have developed and deliver services helping young fathers at HMYOI Swinfen Hall maintain relationships with their children.


[Jacqueline Brocklebank gives her account of the work for which HMYOI Swinfen Hall won its Award]

The ‘Being Dad’ course enables young fathers to think about the impact prison has on their own family.  The course uses creative ways to enable Dads to engage with their children and build relationships whilst being geographically apart.


The project arose as a result of a combined effort by the Chaplaincy and Mothers’ Union to reinvigorate family support services at the prison.  The ‘Fathers Inside’ formal course used to be offered through Education and had to be cut due to funding. So it was important that any new model did not depend on prison funding that could potentially diminish. The’ Being Dad’ Course aims to reach all fathers who show commitment to their families and who want to improve that relationship despite being in prison.

The opportunity to run the course was the result of several things which exemplifies good team work, knowledge and understanding: Mothers’ Union became involved in revamping and running the crèche area in the visits hall, ‘Fathers Inside’ family visits were reintroduced, supported and promoted with Mothers’ Union support, and encouragement was given to start parenting groups using a trained facilitator (me) and chaplain.  All this was attractive to the prison, not least as it would involve minimum cost and would have the backing of Mothers’ Union, a charity which works extensively in the UK in prisons.

The Being Dad course was developed for use with young fathers and had been delivered in YOI Stoke Heath under the chaplaincy team there. When I first started volunteering at Swinfen I had made contact with Rev Jane Newsome at Stoke Heath to discuss the course.   It was good luck that some months later 2 chaplains who had worked in Stoke Heath and who had the knowledge and experience of delivering the course were now working at HMP/YOI Swinfen Hall and this was the final catalyst to start looking at the possibility of offering the course. My experience of working as a trained parenting group facilitator was essential to working with groups of parents.  I also had experience of working in the prison environment as a Mothers’ Union volunteer.

The first course was offered in October 2010.  It consists of 6 units which initially we offered over 6 weeks.  Each session is in the Chapel Group Room which offers a relaxed environment. Due to a certain amount of scepticism from the then Head of Learning and Skills we had to offer the first course as a pilot with the option to review in order to reflect on whether it was successful.

We did detailed planning and preparation, initially being encouraged to use the RARPA system of recording progress (from the then Head of Learning and Skills).  I tried to use this system to fit the Being Dad course but in the end it was deemed not appropriate as long as we had ways of evaluating the programme.

We therefore had to be mindful of collecting evidence before the course, throughout the course and after the course to inform this process.  As this was something which is already part of my approach to running groups this was easily satisfied and we developed appropriate feedback mechanisms. This information was then gathered and reported back to Learning and Skills. For the prisoners I think it was better that they did not think of the course as a part of Education as they would have more buy in and were more likely to enjoy it.

Stakeholder involvement

Successful parenting groups involves group participation focussing on the issues which they need help with or want to discuss.  This provides excellent motivation and also enjoyment for all involved.  So although we use a structure based on an adaptation of the Family Caring Trust’s material ‘From Pram to Primary School’,  aimed at parents with under 5s , it is not a course which gives a prescriptive list of ways to parent children.  Video material is useful to aid discussion particularly if there are issues of literacy.  It is a resource which is well known and used by Parenting facilitators in the community. The authors are also amenable to facilitators using the material flexibly.  The material we use is mainly an aid to help discussion rather than being prescriptive.  We let discussions take their own course if it looks like being beneficial to prisoners.  For instance we have recently had an experience where a prisoner was concerned that he would never shake off his bad image to his son because he is on a life licence.  It was good to see the rest of the group suggest ways of making this negative experience turn into a positive one for this prisoner.

Prisoners focus their attention on the many aspects of how prison affects family life.  One of the main concepts which the course addresses is understanding and recognising feelings and how feelings affect behaviour. As we go through the course prisoners begin to realise how what they are learning can help relationships with all family members not just their children.  This is helpful as they are then encouraged to share this with partners and we are trying to chat to family members on family visits. Prisoners often bring up specific issues which affect them and their partner as well as the child but which nevertheless impacts everyone.

Instead of using the normal parent’s handbook which is very wordy some of the written material has been revamped into handouts with simple words and pictures and these act as an additional resource to take away if interested.  We are also mindful of the learning styles and needs of the prisoners – some will remain quite reserved, others will respond well, some will have difficulty concentrating and can’t sit still.  Recognising these traits and responding to them comes with experience and a great deal of flexibility. I have access to a wide range of resources which can be used  including from Ormiston Trust and Positive Parenting.

We want the course to be shaped by the prisoners on the course and to take from this ideas to shape future courses but also the way other kinds of family support could be realistically offered through the prison, ever mindful of the resource implication in terms of people, money and practical considerations. For this reason we always send feedback to the Head of Learning and Skills and to security and the library about our activities.

Responding to Feedback to shape innovation

One session focuses on how prison affects children and we use as a starting point ‘the day of visit’ talking through what happens on that day from the moment of getting up to getting to the visits hall.  We look at the prisoner’s perspective and the family’s. Often worries and concerns about children visiting are expressed. As part of our response to this my colleague, Rita, has developed a leaflet and posters for the child to look at and share with their carer before they come into prison which looks at the process from their point of view.

We also aim to get feedback from the prisoner about the visits and try to address any concerns.  These can appear to be quite simple like being allocated a seat near to the crèche area, to having more time with the family through an extended Family Day which we have been encouraged to organise where families can do activities together as well as share a lunch together.  This will satisfy their need for more time together

As part of the course we talk about childhood and how that affects us as parents.  We start by talking about things used to do – games, pastimes etc.  This often leads on to the observation that children spend a lot of time alone now not playing.  At Fathers Inside visits prisoners are allowed to get up from their seats and play with their children.

We often find that Dads are not used to playing and don’t quite know how to do it. As part of these visits we offer activity tables where Dads can do messy things with their children including gluing and painting.  This helps to create the bond which is difficult to sustain when you are a prisoner. Also in advance of these visits prisoners have the opportunity to work with my colleague and library staff to produce books for their children to take away.

We have found these activities very helpful in encouraging relationships and the prisoners really enjoy it and are likely to tell other prisoners about it.

We also want prisoners to talk about the course to other prisoners.  We use a variety of techniques to recruit Dads to the course but the best advert is the Dad himself.  We ask for Feedback midway and at the end of the course.

The video material acts as an introduction to the course and provides the starting point for prisoners to consider feelings. We then explore how feelings can affect behaviour.

In order for the course to be successful we wanted to create an experience that was enjoyable as well as useful.  Word of mouth marketing was important for us as a means of telling other prisoners about Being Dad.   It was important to explain to the prisoners that this was an opportunity which was very different from ‘going on programmes’ or ‘doing education’.  It was something to do for them and their family and the aim was to improve this relationship.  As with any group work best practice is to have a group agreement part of which is a Confidentiality Agreement which prisoners must agree to.  This encourages them to open up and be honest and to share their most personal experience, although there is no compulsion to do so. We hope this shows that Being Dad is a unique opportunity for them.  One important spin off of working this way is the support that the group gives each other.  This can take a while to develop and particularly now that we deliver the course over 3 weeks due to regime change at the prison.   This is why ongoing support was requested by the first group we ran. This started as a Ladz R Dadz club with Rita delivering a session of child development.

[In August 2013 Rita Evans provided an update on the work for which HMYOI Swinfen Hall won its Award]

We have continued the book work with additional workshops for books or nursery rhymes for prisoners children, in addition we have trialed an additional workshop of  either writing a story book or nursery rhyme book with puppets (made of wooden spoons) to illustrate, the puppets given to the children in a bag with their name on at the last Family Day. The Dads gave the bag to their children and acted out the story/nursery rhyme with the aid of the puppets, this gave confidence to the Dads and caused a great deal of interest from partners and children. It followed work from a professional storyteller with the group.

We now have monthly Fathers Inside or Family Days established at Swinfen, and the team of volunteers work well together. We have tweaked the organisation of the Family Days to fit in with staff changes and evaluation. The prisoners interact much more with their children following the parenting and other courses and we have introduced nappy changing by Dads and a brief child record book during these visits. Two of us made a trip to Doncaster to see Brenda Fraser, who I had made contact during the training sessions, Brenda inspired us and gave us helpful advice about her initiatives, some of which we have adapted for Swinfen use. Being able to quote what happens successfully elsewhere in a similar prison has supported our activities, as has the continued support of staff in the chaplaincy.

We have received financial support from some church groups and the Mothers Union for equipment, following talks about our activities to groups.

Can I thank the Butlers Trust for the encouragement, training and contacts we made, keep up the good work!


[The following article appeared in issue 4 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]

Jacqueline Brocklebank and Rita Evans, meanwhile, have been commended for their role as volunteers with the Mother’s Union at HMYOI Swinfen Hall, developing and delivering services to help young fathers maintain relationships with their children. Volunteers for more than 20 years, Jacqueline and Rita help deliver the ‘being a dad’ course, which is unfunded and would not exist without volunteer help.

Rita is a teacher and Jacqueline a qualified and accredited parenting group facilitator, and both use their skills and experience to support prisoners in developing their parenting skills and coming to terms with the effect their incarceration has on their children.

The pair have also developed a club to allow prisoners to discuss their children’s development and listen to guest speakers, as well as designing leaflets and posters, organising the provision of toys for prisoners’ children and helping to run the crèche. Swinfen Hall staff have been unanimous in their praise for Rita and Jacqueline’s dedication and passion.

For more information: contact HMYOI Swinfen Hall

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