Santa and his elves have made a special visit to Manawatu Prison for a Christmas whanau day for the families of prisoners.

Mark Cookson (second from left) with Santa and elves at Manawatu Prison.More than 70 people, including 15 prisoners and nearly 40 children, participated in family-friendly activities in the prison’s visits centre last Saturday.

The families were able to enjoy a barbecue, outdoor games, ride-on toys, face-painting, decorating gingerbread cookies and have the opportunity to get photos together.

Prison Director Mark Cookson said the family day was about ensuring that prisoners’ children were able to acknowledge Christmas with their fathers.

“Just because dad is in prison doesn’t mean their children should miss out on festive treats and activities.

“The Christmas whanau day also gives the men who have made a commitment to their family, and been on good behaviour all year, a chance to enjoy some extra time with their children,” Mr Cookson said.

“It was great to have Santa drop in with two elves and give gifts to kids big and small, and it was great to have staff in a variety of roles from across the prison volunteer on their day off to make it a memorable event for prisoners, their partners and their children.”

A young visitor enjoys the Whanau Day at Manawatu Prison. Prisoners’ families attended from throughout the lower North Island, as well as three generations of one family from Manukau, South Auckland.

One prisoner’s mother, who cares for his 10-year-old son, visited with her grandson and another son. The family has supported the son through visits to the prison for a parole hearing and a rehabilitation programme graduation.

The visits were important for children, she said, as it “improves connections with families”. The prisoner agreed, saying having his family visit meant: “love, connection and happiness”.

PARS volunteers Priscilla Carston and Myra Shotton.Local PARS volunteer Priscilla Carston, who was helping with the activities, said it was a good opportunity to meet the men’s whanau and see what, if any, assistance they needed.

For her, the biggest reward of the day was seeing the men catch up with their families and dads with their kids. “It’s the best present for them (the dads),” she said.

Whanau days were one of several initiatives the prison is involved in to maintain family ties, Mr Cookson said.

“A new ‘Lads and Dad’ programme aims to keep the men and their sons connected.

“One day the men will be released and building a positive, ongoing relationship with their sons now will benefit both of them.”