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Prison bonds…of a different kind.

By 07/12/2016Blog

Joanne Mulcahy is a Family Support Coordinator at the UK-based organisation, Prison Advice and Care Trust. Joanne is also trained to deliver a parent-baby program (known here in Australia as The First Touch Program). In an article originally published by IAIM-UK, Joanne writes:

It is difficult enough being a new parent without the stress of the dad being in prison. Mothers are coping alone at home – with the help of family and friends if lucky. In prison, dads are not able to do anything to help, have no chance of bonding with their new baby, and no chance to see important milestones…With up to 435 men at Swansea [a medium-security] prison there are quite a number of young men whose babies are born while they are inside.

While the mainstream media has trained us to dismiss this as part of the punishment that male prisoners “deserve”, research suggests that this is an unwise viewpoint.

The importance and impact of fathers on infant and early childhood development is staggering. Children whose fathers are involved with them from birth, are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings and, as they grow older, have healthier relationships with their friends and communities.  Father’s play is also important in their child’s emotional development, influencing their emotional regulation, self-control and other behaviour. Fathers with an involved and nurturing parenting style have children with better educational, verbal and cognitive outcomes (Rosenberg & Wilcox, 2006).  More recent research has highlighted that the impact of fathering is not tied to what men do, but about how they feel. In a sample of more than 6,300 children, those whose fathers were more confident about being a parent, and who were more emotionally positive about the role, were less likely to show behavioural difficulties by the ages of nine and 11 (Redshaw, et al, 2016). Supporting the father-baby relationship, and men’s confidence in this relationship, is therefore important in improving child development outcomes.

Therefore, it seems unlikely that it is the long-term interest of the broader community to dismiss the separation between fathers and babies.

To address this issue at Swansea Prison, Joanne set about establishing a program that supported bonding between fathers in prison and their babies.

After speaking with [the men] and their partners we put forward a proposal to the prison for a parent and baby group. Held once a fortnight focusing on bonding and baby skills, the prison agreed to a 3 month trial period. And so Baby Group began, The group was advertised to prisoners and visitors. Relevant authorities screened participants to make sure contact was appropriate. Other criteria was that the baby should be under one and the father should have an ongoing relationship with the baby’s mother. We have between 4 and 6 couples in the group at any one time and importantly the women don’t need a visiting order to be able to come: once they are in the group the couples can continue to attend until the end of the father’s sentence – although they are of course free to leave at any time. 

The program used the UK-equivalent of the First Touch Program as its foundation. This program provides a semi-structured approach to supporting parents to understand what their baby is communicating, and then to respond to this using baby massage, sensitive touch, voice, movement and eye-contact. Although seeming simple, these appear to provide the foundations for bonding between parents and babies. Because of the circumstances, the First Touch Program was blended and supplemented with other activities;

A typical session begins with relaxed bonding time in which the mums shows dads things like how to feed the baby, change the nappy and they also update him on the child’s progress since the last time they met. We have a song-and-rhyme time, reading and discussion on a parenting topic, and we even have bathing sessions! But it’s the baby massage that has been the core element of the group.

For many of the men, fathering does not come easily

[In the beginning, the fathers] were hesitant and frequently look to the baby’s mother for assistance and reassurance. Dads were awkward and embarrassed they struggled to undress the baby, unsure of how to deal with the wiggling squirming little beings in their lap, [When using baby massage] they were cold and formal. They were nervous about being watched and judged and were terrified of doing something wrong – of hurting the baby. They were also afraid of looking soft in front of their peers. 

While baby massage may not be rocket science, there is now good evidence that certain approaches to teaching and delivering infant massage education can have significant effects on parent-infant relationships and well-being. This is reflected in Joanne’s observation:

A few weeks in to the program, the dads could not be more different. They handle their babies confidently and are familiar with their bodies and cues. They have begun to understand their little quirks: “He’s tired” one dad informed me as his baby curled up and started fiddling with his toes. “He always does that when he’s tired”. Watching for infant cues and behavioural states, the fathers ask their baby’s permission before touching, and respect their baby’s reactions…massaging their baby has become a warm and tender activity, and they are able to tell when their baby has had enough. In addition regular members of the group are helping new members to learn about [touch and interaction] with the babies.

Experienced professionals who have good knowledge of early social development in children, will recognise these characteristics as major “green flags” – signs of early parent-baby relationships progressing as they should and providing conditions that are highly protective of the child’s development.

Joanne’s case study highlights that regardless of how we choose to respond to people who have committed crimes, it is not necessary to also punish children or – indeed – the broader community by disrupting the parent-baby relationship. Indeed, all the available evidence suggests that modest investment in programs such as these would have a long-term benefit for children, families and communities. It seems questionable to continue commissioning large-scale studies and Inquiries when research already supports the use of small, low-cost, low-tech interventions such as these. For some of these men, becoming a gentle, loving a father may be the best amends they can make for their crimes.


Joanne’s article is quoted here with permission, and was originally  published by IAIM-UK. A copy of the article is available in PDF on request

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