Breaking barriers, rebuilding families

Corin Morgan-Armstrong celebrates the successes of Invisible Walls Wales, a radical and innovative approach to supporting prisoners’ families – and calls for its wider roll-out






Image courtesy of Parc Prison.

When you work with offenders, I believe the most powerful way to engage and motivate is to talk about family. That is not to say that family interventions work is easy, or that it represents a magic bullet for rehabilitation. But having worked intensively on establishing Invisible Walls Wales (IWW) at HMP & YOI Parc, Bridgend, the very tangible results of the project speak for themselves.

IWW arose out of an inspection report ten years ago that identified a lack of input with children and families at the privately-run prison, the largest in Wales (and second largest in the UK). It is a sector-leading model that we have developed ourselves: made in Wales and exported, in various forms, to other prisons in the UK and internationally.

There are three strands to the project: an overhaul of the prison visits facility; the institution of a family interventions unit – the first of its kind anywhere, with a dedicated 64-bed facility that opened in October 2010; and a new approach to partnership working, with community and statutory services, with charities and other organisations with whom prisons might never normally engage.

Supported over its initial four-year period by a Big Lottery grant, there is real potential to mainstream the project – but also an existential threat to its continuance. It would be bitterly ironic if such an innovative and successful project, made in Wales and exported elsewhere, were to be left to become a flash in the pan.

In June 2016, HM Inspectorate of Prisons declared that children and families work at Parc is ‘innovative, radical’ and ‘probably the best they have seen in the UK’. IWW has required a culture shift, turning centuries of entrenched culture on its head. Prison visits have always operated as a security function, with a primary – or, often, sole – emphasis on eliminating the delivery of contraband to prisoners by a minority of visitors.

Despite that all the evidence points to positive family engagement as being a major factor in reducing reoffending (by up to six times, according to Home Office and Ministry of Justice statistics), the majority of prisons don’t do it. Being a private sector prison actually informs our choice here: doing positive family engagement well is cheaper and more efficient than not doing it. Our major challenge, not only for prisons, but for society, is that currently six in ten boys with fathers in prison will end up serving time themselves.

Prison visits halls are unique spaces, where worlds collide; the only place where inside meets outside. Therefore, it is within this carceral geography that we have a unique opportunity to do some amazing engagement work. Moreover, this should not be a choice: we have a moral obligation to do so. From Kampala to Cardiff to the big Texas penitentiaries, visits halls the world over have traditionally been austere, clinical, boring, dirty, intimidating places. To make our visits hall family friendly required a radical change of thinking. Fortunately, Janet Wallsgrove, Director at Parc, and Jerry Petherick, MD of G4S, were fully supportive.

In the summer of 2010, we instituted a departmental shift, with Family Interventions replacing security as the team managing the visits. We revamped the visits hall to create an environment that is colourful, inviting, warm, cheerful, comfortable, relaxed… normal. It now resembles the food hall at an airport, or a university refectory. There are still a small minority of those determined to bring in contraband, there sadly always will be – and we are still focused on preventing this, working alongside the police – but in a smarter way.

But the plus side is that we can now focus on the previously forgotten majority. Now, visitors to the prison arrive at a cheerful, low-key, informal reception centre run in partnership with Barnardo’s, pass through security spaces decorated with Dylan Thomas themed murals and covered walkways built by prisoners themselves. Parc is the biggest Category B prison in the UK, and we are doing everything we can, especially for children, to mitigate fear and anxiety.

The results are obvious: previously, physical altercations in the visits hall witnessed by family members and children averaged one a week; since the reboot, we have had one in six years. This is symptomatic of the culture change, with de-escalation taking precedence over alarm.

Success can be measured in lots of ways; one is in simple statistics. Of the UK prison population at large (85,000), 48% have regular family contact; at Parc, this rises to 69%. We have between 400 and 500 children visiting every week, in addition to closed and non-contact visits. We work with Barnardo’s, Gwalia (housing tenancy support), the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Scouts, Safe Ground UK, Action on Addiction, St John Ambulance, Cadets and South Wales Fire and Rescue to provide activities and homework clubs. IWW is a community resource where inside meets outside.

‘Invisible Walls’ comes from the idea that where we can show the prisoner’s family that he is making a positive effort, and where we can show some of the effects of his incarceration on his children – including bedwetting and night terrors – then there’s positive change on both sides. We work with social services, the probation service and the prison to identify twenty families each year who are deemed to have a ‘heightened need’. Usually, there will be children in care, or at risk of being taken into care; there will be substance abuse, partners with major debt problems and the prisoners will be repeat offenders with significant criminal lifestyles. In these families, everyone is suffering. But however broken it may look, the project wraps around all of it.

We employ four mentors who are responsible for five families each; their role is to bring all of the statutory services together to produce a tailored package of intense specialist support. It is perhaps a mark of the project’s success that from hundreds of applicants, the four postholders have all been with us since the project’s inception – and all are keen to continue. It is also noteworthy, perhaps, that all four are female.

IWW has exceeded all of its contractual obligations, and our hope is that Welsh Government and NOMS Wales will consider their role in mainstreaming the project. Every prison is different, but we have already established a network of likeminded practitioners who have set up similar schemes in Belfast, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Norwich and the West Country. Two public prisons in the Netherlands have adopted the idea; we have had visits from the forward-thinking President of Malta, who wishes to reform the antiquated prisons system in the Maltese islands; there has been a ripple effect worldwide: we have worked with colleagues as far afield as Kampala and Melbourne. We have had endorsements and visits from Michael Gove when he was Justice Secretary and previous UK prisons ministers as well as Liz Truss. Prince Charles, Prince Edward and Princess Anne have all been here – but so far there has been precious little commitment from Welsh Government.

The impact of IWW has been astounding. The headline figure, to be confirmed at publication in 2017, is that we are expecting to evidence reoffending rates among 80 high risk families cut to around 10%. There has been a significant turnaround in school attendance. All children enter the project categorised either ‘at risk’ or ‘isolated’ – no child has left the project in this category. Dads have gained sole custody of their children, including one who had entered the scheme from a position of not even being allowed to visit them. Family members have received education and training, and been treated for substance misuse, which has in itself seen an approximate 72% reduction with the prisoner clients post release. Our four-year goals for replication were achieved at the end of year one.

Given that it costs around £80,000 a year to keep children in care, and a further £50-60,000 if the fathers reoffend, there is a huge financial incentive to invest in the project. It’s successful, it’s cost effective – and it’s Welsh. IWW now exists in different forms in different countries – but there is a real danger that in Wales it will disappear. Wales should not let it go.

Corin Morgan-Armstrong is Head of Family Interventions at Parc prison, Bridgend. This article was first published in issue 57 of the welsh agenda.