Beyond Youth Custody

“Families provide hope… that thread of continuity that everything’s going to be OK, that they’ll get through it”

Joanne Mulcahy
Cymru and South West Manager, Pact

“When I first started this job, I spent a lot of my time thinking, ‘When he comes into prison, that must be the worst thing for that family’, but actually, what families say is that when he comes home from prison that’s the most difficult thing for them. He expects things to not have changed, the family circumstances may have moved on – adjusting to family life is what families say is the most difficult thing for them.

“Resettlement conferencing came about because families were telling me, ‘This has happened, that’s happened, and it feels like this’, and then the prisoners were telling me ‘This has happened, that’s happened, and it feels like this.’ I was saying, ‘You don’t need to tell me, you need to tell each other’, but there’s no circumstance that would allow them to tell each other about it, so we created it.

“The resettlement conferencing has had really, really positive results. If they’re concerned about going home, a few weeks before he’s due to go out, we bring everybody round the table for a really open and honest chat. They need that safe environment. That’s what we provide. They can say what they think, but the situation will be kept in hand. Families say that they can say things in those that wouldn’t otherwise have been able to say. The meeting’s held in a private room away from social visits. The young person, family members, social worker or other support practitioner, personal officer from the prison and anyone who’s involved might come.

“We’ve had prisoners who were technically homeless because their parents, for example, didn’t want them back, but after the conference, their parents said, ‘OK we’ll take you back.’ And we put an action plan in place and that worked really well. When we did follow up calls, they were still living at home. It was fantastic. Guys who went home, who wouldn’t have otherwise gone home. Real, tangible results.

“Typically, children don’t attend unless it is in their interest to be there. Where we’ve had children in, it’s been after that initial meeting. They’ve got questions of their own that they want to ask. Will mum still love them when dad comes home? All the little things that are on a child’s mind that adults don’t think of. It’s really important for children to have that space; they’re overlooked in so much of the process.

“One of the substantial challenges to developing the conferencing is how resource-intensive it is. It takes a lot of time and effort to get everybody round a table. Prisons are so strapped for staff at the moment that it’s really difficult for them to give staff to these things. Prison staff don’t see the benefits of it necessarily – resettlement is something that helps him once he’s released. All they see is, ‘You want me to go up to the gate, search his family, bring them in, get this guy from the wing, bring him down, sit in a room for an hour?… Well that’s half a day gone.’ But it does make a massive difference, and the feedback we get afterwards, I try and share that with them – ‘Look this is what you’ve achieved by doing that today.’

“You have to raise awareness of the value of family work by involving prison staff as much as possible. For example, we held a family day which wasn’t for children. An adult family day, which blew this prison’s mind because they’d never done that before. There was one officer who was actually quite resistant to it, and she came along to the day. There was a guy who had five adult children and a partner. Because you can’t have that many visitors usually, he hadn’t seen them all together for three years. This particular officer saw that on the day and came up to my office afterwards and said, ‘I’d never realised, I’d never even thought about that being an issue’. She said that when he came back to the wing, he was so grateful, and he was talking about it all night and she realised how much that meant to him.

“I think that by involving people they see first-hand that success, and then they come on board. I believe in getting people emotionally involved. If they actually see how that works for that person, first hand, that tends to be more effective.

“We had one Christmas family day, staff stayed late, it was an evening one, and one officer in particular was really complaining about, you know, ‘They shouldn’t have this kind of luxury’, but actually, when the dads were giving presents to their children, and the children were so pleased about it, he said afterwards it was a really moving experience. So it’s changing hearts one step at a time. Change is very slow, but it is happening – there have been quite a lot of changes over the last few years. Where the provision is consistent and where the relationships between the people delivering the services are positive, that makes a huge cultural difference.

“Visitors Centres are important. You need to be able to talk to the family directly, rather than just relying on the young person’s perception of how his loved ones are coping. When we ask him inside, ‘Do your family need support?’ he’ll say, ‘No, no, they’re fine’. But that same family, when you see them on a visit, are saying ‘Oh my God, I’m really struggling with this, but don’t tell him, because I don’t want him to worry’, so you have to see them independently.

“Sometimes, the young men we work with are not very good at communicating what they think. The prison setting does nothing to help with that. When you’re on the phone in the wing you can’t really say, ‘Look Mum, I’m really sorry, I wish I hadn’t done it.’ It’s not a conversation you can have on the phone or in visits.

“We train people on the wings to talk to the new people who come in and offer family support. Often, their head’s not in the right place, they can’t think beyond what’s going on right now. If he can’t face ringing his family to tell them where he is, we’ll do it for him. Or they might say ‘I care for my gran and there’s no one there to do her shopping on Friday.’ They can always approach us, or officers will give us a ring. There’s no complex referral form. We often find ourselves ringing social services. Their letters can be full of jargon. Guys will have a letter saying that their child’s going to be adopted, but when the final contact comes around, it turns out that they didn’t realise that the letter said that their child was going to be adopted. We do a lot of explaining processes.

“Families provide hope, as woolly as that sounds, that thread of continuity that everything’s going to be OK, that they’ll get through it… ‘When you come out, we’ll do this’. Looking forward to the future rather than wallowing in his current circumstances. I don’t think you can measure that, but my sense is that that’s really important.”

Tagged with the theme:


Resettlement of young offenders: informing practice, improving outcomes