Families Reunited Through ‘Invisible Walls’

Invisible Walls’ is a project that concentrates on rehabilitating offenders by strengthening links with their families. Jon Edwards recently attended a presentation to find out more about the project’s impact on those on either side of the Prison’s walls.

Waiting in the visitor centre of Her Majesties Prison and Young Offenders Institute Parc Prison where a presentation on the Lottery-funded ‘Invisible Walls Wales’ project was soon to begin, my eyes drifted toward the massive walls outside. Topped with barbed wire, the concrete camouflaging almost perfectly with the bleak November skies, you realise this is what the inmates see every day. The outside world already seems distant.

Parc Prison, a private facility, faces the same problems as other institutes across the UK. Statistics show that around 72% of offenders return to prison within two years. For a parent in prison, limited contact can also impact detrimentally on their children; around 85% of recorded cases of absenteeism in schools are due to ‘issues at home,’ whilst 6 out of 10 boys with a convicted parent eventually end up in custody themselves. This dynamic can set a dangerous cycle into motion that can be very difficult to overcome.

Awarded £3.1 million by the National Lottery Community Fund over a four year period, the ‘Invisible Walls Wales’ project is an innovative approach to curbing levels of intergenerational offending. Working annually with over twenty inmates, the project places the family themselves at the heart of the rehabilitation process. It does so by encouraging regularised contact visits and offers relationship programmes, family debt advice, housing advice, health and employment information.

Family members gathered around red tables, participating in family bonding activities under the supervision of the 'Invisible walls' project staff.
The key to ‘Invisible Walls’s’ success is maintaining strong links between family members.

In addition, the project strives to break down “barriers” excluding families from the rest of the community. As well as children’s clubs, the Prison now holds school events, which allow some prisoners to meet their children’s teachers for the very first time. The project itself lasts between an inmate’s final year in prison and six months after, with an additional six months being provided on a voluntary basis.

Corin Morgan-Armstrong, Head of Family Interventions and ‘Invisible Walls Wales,’ stresses this method of boosting contact with the outside world is in fact a more cost effective solution than simply doing nothing altogether. As well as National Lottery funding, ‘Invisible Walls Wales’ relies on collaboration between a wide range of other charities (including Barnardos and Gwalia,) as well as the local authorities, social services and schools in the area.

Those who’ve experienced the project firsthand are more than willing to share their thanks. One girl’s father is currently serving his ninth prison sentence; over the past twenty years, he’s been imprisoned for a total of eleven, and has recently missed his youngest son’s first day at school. Nonetheless, she feels ‘Invisible Walls Wales’ has only increased their family’s resolve to all succeed together. She smiles confidently when she talks about him:–

“No one is saying it’s easy [for a parent] – because it’s not. It will be a battle, but don’t you think it’s worth fighting for when you see your family together, when you see that smile on your child’s face, and knowing that it’s there because you made it happen. If that’s not enough, then what is?”

The project has now completed its second year, and with 179 family members having already been involved, a number of prisons across the country are now keen to replicate this model. The Ministry of Justice’s has even released statistics showing that continuous family visits can reduce reoffending by around 39%. Yet for the families themselves, the results don’t come from statistics; it’s about the real prospect of being able to change their lives for the better:–

“We have both learnt a lot about how it was for both of us growing up,” the girl’s father told us all, “I was devastated and felt so guilty about how being in and out of prison for most of my daughter’s life affected her. I know a lot of prisoners are fathers and I think that if most of them knew how much our actions affect our children, we would think twice about coming back.”

That concrete wall outside may not have gotten any clearer since the last time I looked, but for some of the men at Parc Prison, that possibility of being closer with their families has grown stronger than ever.

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