As part of shifting the focus of my work to parenting and families, I’ve been reflecting on some of the work I’ve done with families over the years. One that had a particularly significant impact on me was helping to facilitate a series of workshops with Craig Hammond (an Aboriginal colleague from the Family Action Centre) for Aboriginal fathers who were in prison. The workshops provided me with the opportunity to discover more about the backgrounds of the men and gain insights into some of the challenges of being a father in prison. While I struggled with some of the attitudes and behaviour of the men, at the same time it was easy to respect them and to recognise that they really wanted to be good fathers and wanted the best for their children.
In this post I want to reflect on their experience as fathers and in my next post I’ll explore the workshops themselves.
Being a father in prison was not easy. Often the fathers talked about the pain of being separated from their children. Jason (none of the names are real) had 12 children (all with his wife) and said “it ripped my heart out” when he received his sentence. His family visited every week, and each time they left it was as hard as when he was first sentenced. During the workshop he was often close to tears when talking about being separated from his family. As an aside, he received three and a half years (reduced to 18 months on appeal) for driving while disqualified (and not risking the safety of others), but on the same day he was in court, a “white fella” was sentenced to 9 months weekend detention for driving recklessly and risking the safety of others.
Doug had two children (aged 10 and 5). As he had sole custody of the 10 year old, his son went into care when he was jailed. During the workshops he had the first visit with his 5 year old daughter since being jailed, but had not seen his son while inside. He said that the worse thing about being in prison was not being able to hold his children and that “it just tears me apart.”
Campbell had a 2 ½ year old daughter who was placed in care when he was sent to prison because his partner was using drugs. He was angry his daughter was in care and he was very frustrated that, despite being told that he could have a video link with her, nothing had eventuated. He had not been able to talk to her since being locked up and said he was being “ripped apart” by the situation.
It wasn’t easy for the dads to ring their children. Each inmate was allowed six phone numbers which were pre-set into the limited number of inmate phones. These phone numbers had to be authorised by the prison and, at least in theory, could be changed as often as the inmates wanted. After six minutes the phones automatically disconnected and inmates had to return to the back of the queue for the phone. This made it hard to have a decent conversation to members of their family and, particularly for men who had to ring long distance, it could be quite expensive.
Many of the fathers did not have visits from their children while in prison. Some of their families lived too far away, sometimes the people looking after their children couldn’t (or wouldn’t) bring them for a visit, and some of the men didn’t want their children to visit them in prison. There was a variety of reasons for not wanting a visit. For some, it was just too painful to see their kids, and it was easier to just focus on getting their time over and done with. Others didn’t want to put their children through the process of vising them: it could sometimes take nearly two hours to get through reception and families were often patted down or subjected to sniffer dogs. They felt their families were treated badly by custodial staff and were sometimes treated like they were the criminals. One man said he didn’t want his children to know he was in prison and so had told them that he had a job in a remote location.
Protecting their families, even when they were inside, was very important to most of them. Some of the fathers said that if anyone touched their families they would take the law into their own hands to deal with the offender. They would not care if they were jailed for a long time because their children would know that they stood up for them, which showed they cared.
On the last day of one of the workshops, John asked if he could discuss with the group whether or not he should kill the man who had sexually abused his son. The abuse had happened while John was inside. John was about to be released and was thinking about what action he should take. He felt he needed to show his son that he stood up for him because he was worried that, if he did nothing, his son would think he didn’t care. The group had a very serious discussion about what he should do and, while some initially thought killing the man was the best approach, by the end of the discussion most (if not all) agreed that it was more important that he try to stay out of prison so that he was there for his son. When Craig saw him a few weeks later, John said that he had felt much more settled and calmer since the discussion. One of the things that stood out for me was that the morality of killing the man was not an issue: they all agreed he deserved to die. The question was: What would be best for your son?
Many of the men said that when they were growing up, it was their mothers who held their families together and that their fathers were not around much. Some found it hard to name a strong man in their lives, while others had a significant uncle, brother or pop who acted as a father figure. In one of the workshops three of the men spoke about how things started to fall apart for them (eventually leading them to prison) when the main father figure in their life (a grandfather, an elder brother and a father) died.
Greg, a 24 year old who had been in juvenile detention and prison since he was 15, met his natural father for the first time in prison. It took a while before Greg said hello but, when he eventually did, they didn’t have an easy relationship. Soon after they met, Greg was sent to segregation and, by the time Greg was back with the main prison population, his father had been released and died before Greg saw him again.
When we asked the men what they would us to say to other people, they said they wanted people to know: “We are still fathers and we still have a strong sense of being a father.” They believed that most people had no idea of what their experience was like. As one commented, “Try putting yourself in our shoes and seeing what it is like being a father inside.” Another of the dads said, “Even though we are criminals we are still humans and still have families. We know how to show affection.”
They felt that many people judged them without meeting them. While they may have committed a crime and were in prison, it did not mean they were all bad, nor did it mean that they were bad fathers. In particular they felt that child protection and other services judged them, regardless of their crime, as bad fathers purely because they were in prison. They also felt that others didn’t always recognise it when they tried to better themselves while they were in prison.
The most important message was that they wanted their children to know they loved them, they would be there for them, and that they wanted to have contact with them. They hoped their children would be willing to have a go, be happy and not end up in prison.
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