By Sarah Beresford ,Formerly with Families Outside, Sarah is now an independent consultant committed to raising awareness of children of prisoners.
We tend not to think of prisons as hopeful places, but HMP Parc’s Family Intervention Unit in the Wales UK changed that recently in organizing a special event for prisoners and their families. Three years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time in Uganda with Wells of Hope, an organisation for families and children of prisoners. I wrote about the profound effect of this experience at the time*, and when Corin Morgan-Armstrong, Head of Family Interventions at HMP Parc, visited Wells of Hope the following year, it sparked the idea of linking prisoners and their families in Uganda with those connected to HMP Parc in South Wales.
The Wells of Hope event in HMP Parc began with video messages which the Ugandan children had sent to encourage the Welsh children. To hear these young Ugandans, some of them with fathers on death row, others having been abandoned by family due to the shame of parental imprisonment, describe themselves as children of hope was very powerful. They were a hard act to follow.
I stood up to speak after the videos were played and wondered what I could possibly say to bring hope to the men and their families sat before me. I began with the men themselves, encouraging them to be prisoners of hope. In Uganda, the men I met told me that they were trying to use their time in prison constructively: engaging in education or training (most of them had dropped out of school), and most importantly building a relationship with children. “We’re fathers first”, they told me, and it’s the same for the men in HMP Parc. They too can make sure prison doesn’t define them, have a vision for their future that is meaningful and positive, and develop their role as fathers. The Family Intervention Unit offers a range of programmes specifically for dads, including Bathing Babies, Language and Play, Homework Club, Scouts, and the Duke of Edinburgh Leadership programme.
I then addressed the wives and partners and told them the story of a grandmother in Uganda whose desperate situation we encountered. Her daughter was in prison, and she was left looking after her grandchildren in a house that was falling down around her, dealing with a level of poverty and illness that was hard to watch. When we asked her what she needed, we expected her to mention a new house, or money, and were astounded to hear her reply: “I need companionship.” Isolation and loneliness are not just a problem in Uganda; families affected by imprisonment here in the UK also report that they feel utterly alone. Getting together with others can make a huge difference and can bring hope. Some family members have started their own peer support group, others have gathered together to speak to government officials and policy makers. The difference, and the thing that brings hope, seems to be doing it together.
Finally, the children. They had heard the messages of hope from Uganda, but what could I add to that? I started by reminding them that they are not alone and that this is not their fault (two messages that seem to make all the difference). They do not need to be defined by the imprisonment of their dads; they are individuals with hopes and dreams, skills and abilities. Like the children in Uganda, they can tell their story to encourage others and be children of hope. Earlier in the day, I’d had a tour of the Family Intervention Unit with Hayley Morris, Family Intervention Lead, and she showed me the ‘Tree of Hope’ where children had written their hopes and dreams on leaves for their dads to see. Of course there were the inevitable “I wish my daddy would come home” comments but also plenty of others: “I want my dad to take me on a rocket”; “I hope daddy tickles me”; “I want to do colouring in with daddy.” These are just normal children like any others.
Over food, there was an opportunity for families to buy crafts made by prisoners in Uganda with money raised going to support the work of Wells of Hope. But it’s not just money that can make a difference. Also at the event was a new partnership organisation, Hub Cymru Africa, which supports communication, coordination, and capacity building for groups and individuals who would like to develop Wales-Africa projects. Whilst chatting to Hub Cymru Africa’s Head of Partnership, Cat Jones, a woman whose husband is in HMP Parc approached me and told me that her daughter was moved hearing the stories of the Ugandan children. “She wants to write to them”, she told me, “I think it’ll really help her to know that there are children across the other side of the world going through the same thing.” The look of hope on her face when I mentioned that Hub Cymru could help her daughter stays with me.
When I was in Uganda I was struck by how much the children at Wells of Hope love to sing and dance, but it had never occurred to me that the children in Wales might dance too! To add some excitement to the hope, Corin had invited former All Blacks rugby player Zinzan Brooke along. To round off the afternoon, he led the children in the Haka, and they loved it! With its vigorous movements, stamping of feet and rhythmically shouted accompaniment, I’d always thought the Haka was about intimidating the opposition. I’ve since found out that a Haka can also be performed for other reasons too, such as welcoming distinguished guests or to acknowledge great achievements. It is indeed a great achievement for a prison event to bring hope.
*Formerly with Families Outside, Sarah Beresford is now an independent consultant committed to raising awareness of children of prisoners. Corin Morgan-Armstrong Head of Family Interventions: Custody & Community To read about her experience with Wells of Hope in Uganda, visitwww.familiesoutside.org.uk/wells-hope-report-2/.