Prisoners participating in parenting course.Matt*, a prisoner who has just completed a parenting programme at Christchurch Men’s Prison, is clear about how he wants to parent going forward.

“I want to be a dad and be present. Being who my daughter needs, contribute to her upbringing, and lead by example. I have a lot to make up for.”

For Tom*, his goal is to write a book to his son “so I can read it to him over the phone. When I get out I will engage with him, sit down and do things with him, make time for him, communicate better.”

Matt and Tom are two of the 16 offenders, ten from Christchurch Men’s Prison’s Matapuna special treatment unit and six from the Youth unit, who have recently completed the Plunket parenting programmes.

“The men on this programme are learning parenting skills that can make a real difference for their children,” says Maree Abernethy, Corrections Principal Adviser Rehabilitation and Learning,

 “This will, we hope, have a flow-on effect not only to those around them, but on their children’s understanding and expectations of parenting in the future”

“We ask ourselves, ‘how do you learn these skills if you don’t have them demonstrated in your own home or around you?’ Being in prison provides the men and youth on the course with an ideal opportunity to learn new skills and to reflect on these before release back in to their families.”

This programme is part of a nation-wide prison rehabilitation and education programme designed to provide parents with the skills and strategies required to improve their parenting and develop closer and stronger relationships with their children and families.

 “All those involved in the programme are keen to make a change and take the opportunity to learn to be better parents, to give their children a good childhood, and particularly they want to ensure their children don’t follow their parent or parents into a life of crime and, especially, prison,” says Maree.

It is estimated that around 20,000 children in New Zealand have at least one parent in prison. Many others have a parent on sentence in the community.

Most of the prisoners have children of their own. Some have limited or no contact with their children but are motivated to re-establish contact. A few are not parents now but are either connected to children in their day to day life or, in the case of youth offenders, plan to be parents or caregivers and want to build skills and knowledge for good parenting.

By the end of the course, participants reported that they felt the discussions and tools provided would help them to be more aware about their parenting and that being a good role model also involved treating women (child’s mother/caregiver) with respect.

“If we can get to these parents and help them become better parents and role models for their children, this can make a huge difference in the future of these children, their families and the community as a whole.”

The programme has also challenged the men’s relationships and responsibilities within their families, with one young father saying that when he goes back home, he will, “spend more time together, learn how to treat (my) partner with more respect, and hang out more with (my) daughter” and another saying, “I need to agree with the mother’s choices to support her.”
The parenting course consists of twice weekly sessions over three weeks. To be eligible for the programme, the attendees see their role as a parent/caregiver as a priority in their lives while in prison and/or after release.

“The course focuses on strategies for the development of your children, such as how to stay calm with your kids, how to respond to their individual temperament in a way that supports their development,” says Brigid Wilkinson, Plunket’s National Advisor – Parenting Development.

The course has been adapted, as parents in prison are separated from their children. The facilitators have a role to play in helping prisoners deal with this.

“It’s difficult and it can bring up a lot of emotional stuff. So along with the same parenting skills we teach at any of our courses, our facilitators have a role to play in helping the programme participants to deal with this. We’ll run communications activities, for example parents writing cards to their children about what their child means to them, or making a mobile. If they’re not going to see their children for some time, then making a memories box with cards they can give to their children later in life.” 

Through the course parents learn about how they can support their child’s brain development. Prisoners responded to the course positively and expressed to Plunket how much they felt they needed support to be better parents.

All attendees are keen to make a change and take the opportunity to learn to be better parents, to give their children a good childhood, and particularly they want to ensure their children don’t follow them into a life of crime and, especially, prison.

Prisoners were interviewed by the Plunket programme provider before starting the course and goals were set by the individuals. These were reviewed at the end of the programme. This enabled the provider to see that participants’ understanding of what it means to be a parent changed as the course progressed. Participants were able to learn different tools to engage with their children whilst in prison and as a group came up with ideas of continuing that engagement post release.

Like most parents, the men want their children to have better futures and not make the mistakes they have made.

“I was a sh*t dad,” says one of the programme participants. “I now know the importance of being part of her life. I don’t want her to grow up and date scumbags; I need to set the bar.”