How might historians work with practitioners and policy makers concerned with parents who are offenders and their children? In March 2017, the History & Policy Parenting Forum hosted a small scoping workshop which brought together historians with those working with or campaigning for parents in prisons or on probation. It considered how a historical perspective might be useful in this work.
We started with the example of Laura King’s project, ‘Footsteps to Fatherhood’. This was a collaborative project with West Yorkshire probations services, and in particular a probation worker, Richard Edwards. The aim of the project was to create resources for probation workers in the area, to help them use fatherhood as a positive identity for male offenders. A film and resource pack was produced, and drew on Laura’s historical research, as well as interviews with men currently on probation. One lesson from the past was that many men have played an active and involved role in their children’s lives – the millennial superdad is not so new! This message, we hope, can help men take on positive roles in their children’s lives without feeling like it’s a particularly radical or ‘unmanly’ thing to do. You can find more about the project in Laura’s blog post.
The discussion then focused on some of the work currently being done in prisons around families and family life, during and beyond incarceration. The drive behind this work at a policy level is based on research that has shown that prisoners who have contact with their families are less likely to offend in future and more likely to return to live with their families after leaving prison. We questioned whether support in maintaining family ties should be based on a model of children’s or parental rights – whose interests should be prioritised here, and how? The best interests of children, offenders and other family members are not always in harmony. The responsibility of enabling family visits falls to the partners and family members on the outside, and can bring with it significant financial and emotional costs. For the children, visiting their parents in prison can be stressful and unpleasant. The gendered approach to parenting that exists in wider society was also translated into prison policies: while for female prisoners visits from their children were automatic, for male prisoners they were a reward that had to be earned.
One way for prisoners to become eligible for family visits is through taking a parenting course. Parenting courses could be semi-compulsory in that participation was necessary to move categorisation and prison. They elicited a mixture of responses. Some people took the idea that they need to do a parenting course badly, others saw it as only a way of ‘playing the system’, but for others they provided welcome support. Nonetheless the courses could also bring challenges: for prison staff in terms of time and resources; for prisoners who were encouraged to consider feelings that did not have a place in the hyper-masculine environment of the prison; and for the partner on the outside, who often did not do the course, which could lead to different expectations, models, and expertise around parenting. If the partners of prisoners could take the course, such as with the Solihull Approach, they were expected to pay for it themselves.
We concluded the event by thinking about the ways in which historians and practitioners could work together to deepen understanding about the difficulties faced by the families and children of offenders. Potential opportunities for collaboration could focus around producing resources to be used by prisoners, their families and prison staff; working together to run events for families; and helping to challenge the stigma surrounding families and children of offenders through our research. A historical perspective could be helpful, for example, in understanding, contextualising and questioning macho cultures through long historical examples.
However, we also discussed the difficulties of such collaborations in a testing time of cuts and restructuring. And this led us in the Parenting Forum to reflect how some ‘impact activities’ are far more challenging than others – in terms of resources, ethics and regulatory processes. It would be a shame if historians were put off engaging in these areas which can could offer really interesting opportunities to collaborate in arenas because they are not adequately rewarded by higher education assessment, or fully supported by university outreach offices. Researchers need training and resources from Universities for challenging, long-term projects with enthusiastic partners but with many constraints on their time, so that external engagement can continue to be innovative and work with diverse audiences.
Has anyone else had related experiences they would like to share?