In this post, the last in a series on some fathering workshops I helped facilitate for Aboriginal men in jail, I explore some of the things we (Craig Hammond and I) learnt from doing the workshops. 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 we learnt
I’ve already discussed what I learnt about the experience of the men as fathers in prison, so here I discuss what we learnt about facilitating the workshops.
The workshops were labour intensive. Each series of workshops involved around 70-75 hours for both Craig and I. This include (for each of us, except the first):
- 5 hours – pre-workshop interviews (including travel)
- 24 hours – workshops
- 5 hours – post workshop celebration and follow up
- 2-6 hours –unexpected lock downs, rescheduling and other delays
- 10-12 hours – debriefing, planning, liaison with prison staff
- 5-6 hours – evaluation and reporting
- 2-3 hours – preparing resources, shopping etc
- 12-14 hours – travel (the prison was about 45 minutes away).
Pre workshop interviews were important. Prior to the workshops, where possible, Craig met with the participants individually so they could discuss:
- What they wanted from the course
- Some background on their families
- Their relationship with their family and elders
- What contact they had with their families while inside
- How being in prison had affected their relationship with their children
- What they would like for their children.
During the interviews he also explained what participants could expect from the workshop, our expectations (e.g., attendance) and began the process of building a relationship. These interviews were important in laying the foundation for the workshops. On the few occasions we were unable to talk to the fathers beforehand, problems arose which we believed could have been prevented by the interviews.
Many of the Brothers had little contact with their children and wanted to build a relationship with them. They were often unsure about how to build a relationship with their children and 4½ days were not going to create a miraculous change. The workshops were valuable in raising issues and assisting the men to think about their roles, but it would be helpful to be able to also provide longer term support that would help the men develop their relationships in practical ways.
Workshops needed to be over a short time-frame. Workshops spread over two to three weeks were more successful than ones spread over a longer period. Due to the movement of inmates (e.g., because of operational requirements or release), the shorter time-frame meant participants were more likely to be able to complete the workshops. The requirements of the prison meant the workshops were normally for around six hours each day, including a lunch break.
It was important to have support from prison staff. Without support from some of the education and welfare staff from the jail, it would have been virtually impossible to run the workshops. They were able to help us navigate the prison bureaucracy, find ways around hurdles and encourage some of the men to participate. In the early days they were also important in helping us to understand aspects of the prison culture.
The workshops needed skilled facilitators working in pairs. While there were many similarities with community-based workshops, the context of the prison required higher-level facilitation skills. The potential for little things to escalate, or for things to go wrong, was always present and we needed to be able to respond to a wide range of issues. It was also important to have at least two facilitators for the workshops to ensure the safety of the participants and the facilitators.
Many of the participants were mistrustful of people in authority. Like any workshop, we needed to demonstrate our credibility as facilitators to each group. For example, at the start of the second series of workshops Lionel (not his real name) asked if they needed to say anything and, if they did not, whether or not it would affect their certificate at the end of the workshop. During one of the breaks on the first day, he quizzed me about my training, background and fathering experience. I felt he was checking to see if I was there as an “expert” with “text book” knowledge, rather than as a father who was sharing my experience. On the last day he also asked me what I had learnt from the workshops. He was apparently satisfied with my responses and the workshop process because he ended up being actively involved throughout the workshop and enthusiastically encouraged other inmates to attend future workshops.
A strengths-based approach provided a solid foundation. The workshops were built on a strengths-based approach. We believed that, like everybody, the men had strengths, inspirations and abilities, and we chose to focus on these rather than their deficits and deficiencies. Their strengths and hopes for the future were what would enable them to change and grow. Aboriginal men are surrounded by negative images of what it means to be an Aboriginal man and through the workshops we hoped to start challenging the dominant story, to show the important role that men play in their children’s lives, and to encourage them to identify their own strengths.
Many workshops, particularly in jail, focus on negative behaviour (e.g., drug use, violence) but the Brothers Inside workshops focused on something the men were interested in and wanted to be good at; that is, being fathers. This meant the men were much more engaged and, through the workshops, it was still possible to discuss issues such as drug use and violence in terms of how it impacted on their relationship with their children. When the men said these was the best workshops they had ever been to, we believe it was largely because of the strengths-based focus.
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