Facilitator Spotlight (prisons): Warren

Warren is a dad of five children and works full time but takes advantage of Corporate Social Responsibility (CRS) hours which enable him to facilitate Kids Matter workshops in prisons during his working day. We asked him some questions about his experience:

What inspired you to become involved with Kids Matter’s prison programme?

I’ve worked in various volunteer capacities supporting men in difficult situations involving drugs, crime, poverty, depression but fatherhood is close to my heart. I am a dad and I know how hard parenting is. It’s a huge responsibility and yet we don’t formally learn what it means to be a great parent beyond our experiences and ideas of good and bad.

Kids Matter recognises the transformative power of family (parenting!) on individuals, communities and society at large. Running Kids Matter in prisons specifically is the chance to impact such a deep area of need, for the prisoners and their families.

What was it like working in a prison context?

It’s been the most taxing and rewarding work I have experienced. Part of what makes it hard is that it is very different from my day-to-day work. Like any skill, over time and with practice I have developed greater capacities and resilience. I benefit from the personal reward of giving myself to something that is transformative and beneficial to individuals, families, and communities too.

What is something you have learned from running programmes in prison?

I have had my eyes opened to a world that was unknown to me and shaped entirely by media perceptions. I have developed an awareness of a system under immense strain and a deep appreciation for the people who work within that system. I have seen the wounding impacts of extreme isolation and I have not only witnessed the appetites of men to be good fathers but the wisdom found within fathers who are prisoners themselves.

Could you talk about the importance of working within the prison environment?

For many, prisoners are deserving of nothing but punishment for their wrongs. Often there is a forgetfulness of both the value of the human lives found in prisons and the impact on the lives left behind. Prisons are meant to be a place of reform, not simply isolation and punishment. Unfortunately, in its current state, the prison system appears to be one that exacerbates underlying issues by lacking consideration for the ecosystem that an individual is a part of: their family or community, all those outside where these individuals had a broader shaping role. This means that others pay a price alongside those in prison, which is what contributes to the cycle of incarceration. There are and have been some fantastic efforts to shift this but there is still a very long way to go. Kids Matter programmes (in prison and in the community) are interventions that wrap around prisoners and their families, building strong relationships in order to give children a hope and a future regardless of their circumstances.

What are some of the unique challenges faced by incarcerated parents when it comes to maintaining relationships with their children?

The quite obvious challenge is that the dads are physically apart from their kids. In one of the Kids Matter workshop sessions, we talk about the value of play as way to bond and strengthen the parent-child relationship. It’s important to talk about but is also a stark reminder that the dads are segregated from their families, which is especially difficult for those who have been in prison a while. This can impact the dads’ engagement during the workshop because whilst they’re trying to work through the material, 60% of their RAM has been used by just thinking about the fact that they miss their child.

How do you deal with that from a programme perspective?

Well, there’s no escaping the reality but the workshops focus on the fact that although they might not be able to physically play with or hug their children right now, there are things they can do to connect with their kids. Sometimes the dads disconnect from their kids, not because they want to but as a natural consequence of their imprisonment. We encourage them to do the best they can to stay in touch with their kids while they are in prison because the benefits are huge. Dads in prison can write letters or talk on the phone – they can use words to affirm their kids and be curious about what’s going on with them, for example. And then when they get out, they will also have the tools to connect with their kids (understanding the importance of play and physical affection).

What positive transformations have you witnessed as you’ve run Kids Matter workshops in prison?

It is a real privilege to host workshop sessions with other dads and witness a-ha moments, examples of excitement to try something out with their children or bringing their own experiences of tried efforts to the conversation.

A number of stories of success, courage and determination come to mind as I reflect on past sessions. I remember a dad who took time to write to each of his children separately with a unique message, when previously he tried to cover them all with a single message. He found that this change in approach stirred something in him, as he thought of and wrote to each child separately as well as changed the ways in which his children responded. His children were both more engaged in their conversations and started putting more details about themselves into their replies. He was so excited about the impact on their relationships.

Another story is of a dad who shared conversation starters with his partner so they could try them out together with their children, which developed new levels of engagement with their children, for both parents.

Another dad really wowed the others in the group with his view on being radically patient with our children, even when it is really hard. He really implored the whole group, through all the scenarios those in the group found hard to be patient in. It was a beautiful moment of collective honesty about the challenge and respect for the benefits of being especially patient with our children that was shared by someone who had seen it work.

There are many stories like these, and they are such wonderful motivators to keep going.

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