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There are 82,305 men in prison in the UK, but it’s not only those behind bars who are forced to serve a sentence of absence from their families. These men are fathers to an estimated 200,000 children and, with phone calls limited and visits closely monitored, forging a bond with their children as they grow up is a huge – and hugely emotional – challenge.
Enter the Inside Stories project, by charity Create. It helps prisoners aged between 18 and 25 to connect with their children by working with writers, artists and musicians to create original illustrated storybooks and CDs
Groups of up to eight prisoners work for 12 days in pairs to write, illustrate and record their stories, helped by skilled professional artists. The project culminates in a celebratory family visit day at which the stories are performed to music. Each child receives a copy of the book his or her father has created, along with a recording on CD, allowing them to hear their father’s voice. Princesses and animals are common characters.
“The children are hugely important in all of this, and I think they’re often forgotten,” says Nicky Goulder, Create’s co-founder and chief executive.
“Children who have a parent in prison are massively stigmatised – lots of them suffer bullying, and it triples the chance of them displaying antisocial behaviour themselves. That’s why this project is unbelievably important. We know that 38 per cent of young offenders reoffend within 12 months of being released,” says Goulder, “so developing programmes that can help to reduce reoffending – which costs between £9.5bn and £13bn a year – seemed like a good thing to do.”
The project is not without challenges – from safety concerns to staffing – but Goulder notes that its rewards make it worth the effort and more. As she notes, helping prisoners stay connected with their families could be a way to cut reoffending rates. In a government-commissioned review into the links between prisoners’ family ties and reoffending, it was found that inmates who receive visits from members of their family are 39 per cent less likely to reoffend than those who do not. The review’s author, Lord Michael Farmer, concluded that relationships are fundamentally important in helping people to change.
“I think my family feel proud of me for doing this,” says one prisoner who took part. “I’ve shown my partner, children and parents that I am thinking about them, being productive with my time, becoming a good man.”
Ryan (not his real name) was born a heroin addict and has been in and out of care. In 2016, when he had served three years of a six and a half-year sentence, he took part in Inside Stories.
“There are a lot of people in jail whose kids mean everything to them,” says the 19-year-old. “You only get two hours a month to see your family. You can only make two phone calls a week in here and it’s hard to talk to them.
“My story was about a village called Musicville that has lost all of its music. I thought that would be pretty sad – I love music.
“I’m not sure whether my children will understand that the book was written for them, but as long as it makes them smile then I don’t mind. I used to make up stories for them all the time, I just never wrote them down.
“Having this book that you can give to them, and a CD where they can hear your voice – it makes me feel good knowing they can hear my voice whenever they want, just by pressing play on a CD player.
“I have so much respect for Create for coming in here. It takes a lot of courage to do so – everyone’s a lifer in here and not to have people judge you and instead offer to help means a lot. Charities like Create don’t treat us like criminals: it really touches me. They haven’t given up on us – they realise that we’re still people.”
By Sophie Brown
13 December 2017