Workshops for Aboriginal fathers in prison – what worked

Photo (OZinOH)

Photo (OZinOH)

In this post, part of a series on some fathering workshops I helped facilitate (with Craig Hammond) for Aboriginal men in jail, I explore some of the things that worked well. The workshops, Brothers Inside, were generally 4½ days spread over 2-3 weeks and focussed on the roles the men played as fathers (both in and out of prison) and ways in which they could strengthen these roles, and encouraged the dads to think about how they could improve their connections with their children.

What worked well

Strengths based approach. The foundation of the workshops was a strengths-based approach. Craig Hammond (my co-facilitator from the Family Action Centre) and I believe that all the men had strengths they can build on as fathers and we respected the opinions and experiences of the workshop participants. Many of the men said Brothers Inside was the best workshop they had every attended. I suspect that a large part of the reason for this was that in prison most of the workshops they attended were about not doing something: don’t do violence, don’t do crime, don’t take drugs. Our workshops, on the other hand, were saying: “You are fathers, that is incredibly important. You play a significant role in your children’s lives so be the best dads you can be.” This set a very different tone to the workshops compared to most they attended. Importantly it was also on a topic that interested them. In this context we were then able to have conversations about violence, crime and alcohol and other drugs.

Non-judgemental attitudes. Part way through the first series of workshops we learnt that some of the inmates had been concerned that we would assume that they were “bad” fathers and tell them how to be “good” fathers. Fortunately we had been careful to respect their experience, be non-judgemental, listen to them and not lecture them on what they should do. While at the start of each series of workshops there was still some mistrust and suspicion, word soon spread that we were respectful and non-judgemental.

Participation by the inmates. As in most workshops, some participants were more actively involved than others, but generally there was good participation. Quite often it took a while before the fathers were willing to open up, but most workshops included lively discussion about their experience of being fathers. In a previous post I gave the example of John who wanted to talk about whether or not he should kill the man who sexually abused his son. While this discussion was more intense than normal, there were many other discussions about the challenges and responsibilities of being a father. At times participants challenged each other about their attitudes towards fathering. For example, Harry (who was hoping to make contact with his children for the first time in 12 years) was not sure what to say or how to say it, so he was thinking that he would leave it to his daughter to ask lots of questions. The other fathers said that he needed to take more of the initiative because he was the father and should not just leave it to his daughter.

Being flexible. We needed to be very flexible. While we had agendas for each day, they were only a scaffold for what could happen. We often abandoned our agenda if one of the dads made an interesting comment or if the group wanted to explore a particular issue. We also needed to be flexible in order to cope with lock downs (where inmates were confined to their cells or wing), fluctuations in attendance and being able to adapt agendas and process depending on the participants’ priorities and interests.

Taking biscuits and sweets. The inmates really appreciated the fact that we brought in biscuits and sweets because they didn’t often get them while inside. Although this may appear a relatively insignificant part of the workshops, it demonstrated that we, as facilitators, valued the inmates and helped promote a positive relationship between the facilitators and inmates.

Posters and DVD. Craig had developed a series of posters and a DVD promoting positive images and messages about Indigenous fathers. The Brothers appreciated the positive approach (most images of Indigenous men are negative) and the resources opened up significant opportunities for discussion.

Building positive relationship with prison staff. Having staff in the prison who were supportive and could help us get through the red tape and operational requirements was important. In particular one of the Aboriginal teachers and one of the non-Aboriginal teachers (who seemed to have positive relationships with the Brothers) were important in encouraging fathers to join in the workshops and in dealing with custodial staff and operational requirements of the prison.

In the next post I will discuss some of the things we learnt from running the workshops.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Being an Aboriginal father in prison
  2. Workshops for Aboriginal fathers in prison – challenges
  3. Workshop for Aboriginal fathers in prison – what we learnt
  4. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  5. Creating positive images of Aboriginal fathers
  6. Literature on engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Facilitation & teaching, Families & parenting and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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