New Leaves: reconnecting families after fathers are released from prison

“Imprisonment can be profoundly destructive for families intimate and social relationships. The current rate of inter-generational re-offending is alarming.’’  Crime can often be more shaming for the surrounding family than the criminal themselves, and HMS Parc Prison’s flagship Family Intervention Wing aims to reduce re-offending by developing a positive sense of attachment and responsibility with fathers who have been or are, in prison.  We’ve worked alongside this wing to create the project ‘New Leaves’, to work with the whole family as part of a prisoner’s rehabilitation.

We’ve taken six imprisoned fathers on six separate residential courses with their families, with an aim to connect them to the wild landscape and support their reconnection with each other. Through planned activities, the use of myth and story, the families get a chance to step out of the stress of readjustment and spend time re-bonding and having positive shared experiences. We hold a relaxed environment for safe, heartfelt communication. There’s plenty of opportunity to express feelings and emotions usually difficult to articulate in normal life.

“It has been shown that the use of fairy tales has emotional and symbolic importance for children and their emotional growth.” By using mythical stories, the project seeks to aid children to understand and positively channel their emotions in symbolic terms.

During a ‘New Leaves’ program, families co-create a storybook together as they follow an outdoor trail of activities with the threaded themes of shy Wizards and a hunt for a Dragon’s layer.  The culmination of the lived mythical story is a large wood-sculptured dragon breathing real fire. It’s a striking symbolic connection to the Welsh Dragon that engages the family with their cultural and geographic heritage, whilst playing within the myth and wilderness of the post-industrial South Wales landscape. After finding the Dragon’s Nest and gold, the family co-writes a short piece with the title “The gold we have found in ourselves”.

An interesting by-product of running the pilot year is a sense of ‘cross fertilisation’ that happens during each course. Living in the presence of facilitators who have different daily habits and lifestyles is a worthwhile cultural exposure. Families eat home-cooked organic meals, socialise and play music around a camp fire, without a TV or Internet all weekend.  It’s these subtle, shared new experiences that may increase the family’s sense of unity and strength as they transition into having their fathers and husbands back from prison.

Now, at the end of our pilot year of delivery, we are aiming to set up a reunion day where all the families can meet, celebrate and socialise together, continuing the community bond through their shared experiences within New Leaves. We are also hoping to produce a coffee table style picture book that highlights the political climate of children affected by parental imprisonment, our work with ‘New Leaves’, and some anonymous stories of the families.

Ben Ford – New Leaves coordinator and trainee facilitator