"Last week I went to prison"

Updated: Jul 18

Written By: Igniting Change

Date: November 17, 2018

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Last week I visited Risdon Prison in Tasmania. I suppose like many people whose lives haven’t been directly touched by the criminal justice system, I didn’t know what to expect. I was there to meet Pastor Norm Reed and to see his video visiting and homework programs in action - Igniting Change has funded both initiatives, and I was keen to see the impact they were having on the lives of individual prisoners.

What I hadn’t really understood before this visit, is that prisoners are also parents, children, carers, siblings, breadwinners…and their sentence often carries a ‘hidden sentence’ for family members. As well as the loss of a family member, there’s often loss of income and stigma too, affecting children as much as adults. Maintaining healthy family connections while inside is one of the major factors in helping prevent reoffending.


Norm Reed’s church is next to Risdon Prison. Before we went inside the gates, he told me the first thing he did when he arrived as pastor was to offer church land for low security prisoners to turn into a veggie garden. This is when Igniting Change met him, and supported seeds and garden equipment. 4 years later this garden and one inside the prison have grown 10,000kg of vegetables for distribution by Second Bite to over 150 community organisations across Southern Tasmania. We got a big wave and a smile from a guy in bright orange overalls as we drove past.



Next, with the permission of prison authorities, Norm began to organise video visits, connecting men and women inside the prison with their families at funerals, weddings and meeting new babies by video. The importance of maintaining these connections cannot be overestimated: according to recent UK Prison Reform Trust report, a single visit while in prison can reduce the chance of reoffending by up to 40%.

   

The process of getting into the prison had to be arranged in advance, and I was glad I was with Norm as I went through the various checks. Apparently visitors aren’t automatically granted access to the prison even when they’ve passed security checks – internal security concerns or other reasons may prevent a face to face visit from happening, even when a family has travelled a long distance. This makes video visiting all the more sensible.


We were issued with passes and a personal alarm, and went to the visits area to meet Michael (not his real name), who was waiting for us so that he could attend his uncle’s funeral. A volunteer at the funeral service turned on the camera, and we left Michael to grieve. As he left afterwards in tears, he said he’d been raised by his uncle, so it had been really important to be there.



Later that afternoon I met 3 young girls who arrived to do homework with their Dads. This was part of an ongoing program which links the parent in prison with schools (to get an advance copy of the homework) and then supports them to do homework with their child, in person or on video.


This often creates extra much needed support for the family on the outside, through the Family Engagement Worker, a volunteer role Norm developed in recognition of the difficulties many families experience. A recent report for the UK Prison Reform Trust said that 65% of boys who have had a father in prison go on to offend themselves, and Norm says that this reflects his experience in Tassie. However, the same report holds much hope for breaking the cycle.

  • 65% of boys who have had a father in prison, go on to offend themselves.

  • Creating and encouraging healthy family contact whilst in custody can reduce the likelihood of offending by up to six times.

  • Offenders who had received at least one visit during their time in custody were 39% less likely to re-offend than those who had received no visits.

  • Parental imprisonment approximately trebles a child’s risk of developing antisocial or delinquent behaviour.

  • Over half of prisoners interviewed (54%) had children under the age of 18 when they entered prison. The vast majority felt they had let their family down (82%).

  • 40% of prisoners said that support from their family would help them stop reoffending in the future. 36% mentioned seeing their children as an important factor.  

One of the girls visiting her Dad asked Norm when the next Family Day was. Norm organises four of these events, one in each prison, three times a year during the school holidays. These are special days when prisoners enjoy normal fun time with their children engaging in activities such as cooking competition, face painting and other games and craft activities. One of the girls proudly told me that she painted her (large, tattooed) Dad’s face as a princess. Norm said that the Dads often don’t wash off the face paint returning to their cells proudly painted as princesses and tigers wearing these decorations as a badge of honour.

At a time when prison populations are growing more than 5 times faster than the general population[1], Norm showed me that simple acts of kindness and connection make more difference than I’d ever understood was possible.

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