Skip to main content

Invisible Walls Rehabilitation Programme (HMP Parc)

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

I am extremely pleased to be appearing here in front of you, Mr Caton. I appreciate that the Gower constituency is one where possibly few people end up in prison, but if they were to, the likelihood is that they would have the opportunity to serve their sentence in Parc, which is a local prison for Welsh offenders, so I am sure that your interest in this debate is similar to mine.

Not many MPs like to boast about their local prison, but then not many MPs have been invited to numerous presentations of awards for the staff and volunteers at their local prison. I have seen how a dedicated group of staff and volunteers at Parc have developed an innovative approach to rehabilitating prisoners in their care. Under the leadership of the prison director, Janet Wallsgrove, Corin Morgan-Armstrong and his team of staff and volunteers, along with numerous local organisations, have led the way in rehabilitative work. The team are very special, and their contribution deserves special recognition and wider implementation, which is why I am here today.

Invisible Walls is part of a wider network of support that Parc Supporting Families undertakes to make rehabilitation a central part of its work with prisoners. Underpinning that is a belief that a prisoner’s life does not stop once they are inside and that punishment should not apply to their family and especially not to their children. The payback for society from Invisible Walls comes from the fact that, for some prisoners, maintaining the family link is vital to successful rehabilitation.

As is always said in presentations about Invisible Walls, why bother? Why bother helping a prisoner to stay in contact with his family and children? Because crime, the consequences of crime and dealing with offenders is expensive. Reoffending costs anything between £9.5 billion and £13 billion a year. Those affected by crime—the victims and their families and the families of offenders—bear a cost that has a huge and lasting effect. Some 200,000 children in England and Wales have a parent in prison. That is two and a half times the number of children in care and six times the number of children on the child protection register. More children are affected by imprisonment than by divorce. The children of offenders are more likely to offend themselves. Six out of 10 boys with a convicted parent end up in custody themselves. The children of offenders are three times more at risk of mental health problems.

Let me quote the social exclusion unit:

“Research shows that the existence and maintenance of good family relationships helps to reduce re-offending, and the support of families and friends on release can help offenders successfully settle back into the community. Yet at every stage of a prisoner’s movement through the criminal justice system, families are largely left out of the decision-making process and rarely get the opportunity to support prisoners effectively.”

Invisible Walls has grown out of the work of Parc Supporting Families, which identified that engaging with a prisoner’s family had all-round benefits for the prisoner and their family, but especially for their children and the wider community. Invisible Walls has strong foundations. Parc Supporting Families first took over the running of the visits department. It changed both its physical space and how it feels to receive and to make a visit. The focus was shifted from simply being about security to engaging the family. Walls were decorated with prisoners’ artwork by the art intervention team—another team who have won awards for Parc. That was done in a café and a children’s play area, so that parents and children together can experience family-centred mealtimes, playtime and interaction.

Invisible Walls has three principal aims: to reduce the risk of reoffending and a return to prison; to reduce the risk of intergenerational offending; and to increase family and community cohesion. The effect that we often neglect is the effect that just one person with criminal intent living in a small community can have on that community, so increasing efforts to move an ex-offender back into playing a constructive and positive role in the community has huge benefits.

During the four years for which the project will run, 20-plus families a year will be identified for help. Those are families in critical need of support. They are families in which the father has a minimum of six months left to serve. Fathers must be drug free and undergo regular testing. They must sign a compact to undertake this often difficult and painful work. Prisoners are based in a dedicated family intervention unit. I must stress that both the prisoners and the officers who are engaged in this programme are not simply selected for it; they have to want to participate. It is no good asking either prisoners or staff who do not want to engage with this programme to take part.

The whole family are supported for as long as a year before release and, critically, for up to six months post release. The support comes in many forms. It includes advice on and support with parenting and physical and mental health support. Schooling, accommodation and substance misuse are tackled. Finance and debt and the issue of relapsing into offending are considered. Fathers are encouraged to build a relationship with their children. Individual and group sessions are attended. Prisoners talk, often for the first time, about their feelings and how their offending impacts on their family and community. This is often difficult work.

The Learning Together club teaches prisoners about what their children are learning in school. It helps them to engage with their children and their schoolwork; it enables them to help with their children’s homework during visits. Bedtime stories are recorded, so that children can maintain the link with their father while they are at home.

I must stress that the team at Parc are not working in isolation. The project is supported by a number of organisations and volunteers: Bridgend county borough council, the Wales Probation Trust, Barnardo’s Cymru, Harp Resettlement, Gwalia Housing and many others. Of special note is the £50,000 of funding that has come from the Big Lottery Fund. That was a first for the Big Lottery Fund and it is something that we should applaud. Changing prison culture from being inward facing to being outward facing, focusing on building relationships with outside agencies and maximising the opportunities that those relationships offer is not easy, either for prisons or for prisoners, and we must commend it.

I must tell you about one picture that I saw, Mr Caton. A child was asked to draw a picture of their family before they became involved in the scheme. The child drew mum on one side, the child in the middle and dad on the other side of the piece of paper. Between each of the individuals in the family was a closed door and, underneath, the child wrote, “They are arguing and I’m stuck in the middle.” After going through the Invisible Walls programme, the child was asked to complete another picture. This time, there were no doors, everyone was smiling and the child wrote, “Everyone is happy and we’re not arguing any more.” They say a picture paints a thousand words—those two pictures certainly do.

The Invisible Walls project and linked initiatives have proved successful. Successive inspection reports have focused on work with families as positive, with support for families being singled out for specific praise. There are not only inspection reports, however. The Welsh Centre for Crime and Social Justice, based in the university of Glamorgan, is undertaking an evaluation and research assessment of the scheme. That work began last year and will continue until 2015.

I ask the Minister to look at the research carefully and to consider how what has been put in place at Parc could be applied elsewhere. I want him to give an undertaking to look at what has been achieved and facilitate its future application. I understand that it has already been replicated at Her Majesty’s prisons Altcourse and Maghaberry in Northern Ireland. The staff at Parc have never been afraid to try something new, which is not always easy in state-run prisons. Private sector prisons—Parc is the only one in Wales—perhaps have such an opportunity, and we need to ensure that state-run prisons also have that opportunity. We might also remove the invisible walls between the quality work done in state and private sector prisons, and spread the capability to undertake such work across the prison estate.

As I have said, Parc is a local prison that accommodates prisoners close to home. That makes family intervention relatively easily and makes an Invisible Walls programme possible. I understand that the Ministry of Justice is working towards more prisoners serving the last six months of their sentence closer to their home area. If that period could be extended a little, there would be opportunities to assess prisoners for that work, which might prove most positive both financially and in tackling reoffending.

Wales has no prison for women, and more than 17,000 children are separated from mothers who are imprisoned in England. The plea from Welsh MPs is for the Minister to consider whether it would be possible to have something like the Invisible Walls project to work with women. Many of them are separated from not just their children, but their wider family, because of the distance between their family and where they serve their sentences.

Invisible Walls has generated new ideas, and there is a constant desire to improve and learn from the programme. One such idea is to build links between the prison and schools, specifically to support children whose fathers are in prison. Children of offenders experience a range of negative emotions, and are often vulnerable to being bullied and to becoming bullies, so they have an increased risk of exclusion from school. They may have experienced the trauma of witnessing an arrest, and they have felt the impact of being cared for by one parent.

Building a link between a school and the prison can help to counteract that trauma and to prevent problems from developing that might lead to the child ending up in the criminal justice system. The idea is very simple: the school signs an Invisible Walls accord, meaning that, when a parent is in prison, the head teacher identifies a single point of contact who is responsible for offering advice and guidance to children and primary carers confidentially. The person identified will almost certainly be the current child protection officer in the school, who already has the necessary training to fulfil the new role, while the prison would provide training, access to support online and an electronic library.

The scheme is in its early stages, but it has already gathered significant support. It might make a significant impact on the many vulnerable children at risk of becoming the next generation of offenders. I hope that the Minister will talk to the Department for Education and obtain its support. For the scheme to be established, it needs to be approved, so will the Minister personally give it his seal of approval? Will he undertake to talk to the Department for Education, so that the scheme can be rolled out to prisons across England? The cost is negligible, because the scheme builds on things and people already in place. It would make a difference to children and their families and, indeed, to schools and to the potential for education, because many people in prison have low levels of educational achievement.

Only if we think for the longer term and use projects proven to work will we bring down reoffending and steer the next generation away from prison. I appreciate that Invisible Walls is not a project for everyone, but it gives us the possibility of finding prisoners with whom such work could be undertaken and of making a huge difference to future reoffending. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing this debate. On behalf of Her Majesty’s prison Parc and all the staff who work there, I thank her not only for how she made the case for the Invisible Walls programme, but for her support over a much longer period. The debate highlights an issue at the forefront of the Government’s plans to transform the criminal justice system.

The hon. Lady and I will be glad, as I am sure you are, Mr Caton, that crime has been coming down for some time. The overall level of crime recorded by the police decreased by 8% in the year ending December 2012, compared with the previous year. Such figures are encouraging, but they are not grounds for complacency. We can do much more to reinforce the downward trend, so that people can feel safe wherever they may be, at any time of the day or night.

As the hon. Lady pointed out, the key is to tackle reoffending by taking bold and effective steps to rehabilitate offenders—assisting, encouraging and guiding them away from crime into new, worthwhile and productive ways of life. That is precisely the intention of the Invisible Walls project at HMP Parc. It is worth saying that that matters because reoffending has been too high for far too long. Almost half of all offenders released from prison offend again within 12 months, and those with the very highest reoffending rates are prisoners with custodial sentences of less than 12 months. A staggering 58.2% of those released in the year to June 2011 reoffended within 12 months. The current system simply does not address the problem in the way we want, and many prolific offenders, with a host of complex problems, are released on to the streets with £46 in their pockets and little else, so the case for a new approach is clear.

We spend more than £3 billion a year on prisons, and almost £1 billion annually on delivering sentences in the community. Despite that investment, overall reoffending rates have barely changed over the past decade. The same faces come back through the system time and again, because most crime is committed by that relatively small number of prolific offenders. If we enabled them to turn away from crime, we could make a real difference.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, on 9 May we set out our plans in “Transforming Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Reform”, which took account of the comments received in response to the consultation paper that was published in February. The document sets out that, for the first time in recent history, every offender released from custody will receive statutory supervision and rehabilitation in the community. We are legislating to extend statutory supervision and rehabilitation to all 50,000 of the most prolific group of offenders—those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody.

The market will be opened up to a diverse range of new rehabilitation providers, so that we get the best out of the public, voluntary and private sectors, at local as well as national level. We will also introduce payment incentives for market providers to focus relentlessly on reforming offenders, giving those providers the flexibility to do what works, along with freedom from bureaucracy, but paying them in full only for genuine reductions in reoffending. We will create a new public sector national probation service, working to protect the public, and building upon the expertise and professionalism that are already in place.

Of particular importance, and of particular relevance to what we are discussing, is that we are putting in place an unprecedented nationwide through-the-gate resettlement service, which means that most offenders are given continuous support by one provider, from custody into the community. We will support the service by ensuring that most offenders are held, for at least three months before release, in prisons designated to their area. The hon. Lady asked me to consider how we might extend that period. It would, of course, be desirable to have the longest possible period of stability during a sentence, and she will be reassured to know that we hope that many people, particularly those sentenced to periods of 12 months or shorter, will be able to spend the entirety of their sentence in a local prison, which will enable precisely the sort of work we are talking about to go on with them.

The hon. Lady described how the Invisible Walls project seeks to help prisoners at Parc to avoid reoffending, and it also addresses the genuine risk that those prisoners’ children may themselves be drawn into crime. She rightly highlights what I think we all agree is a shocking statistic: six out of 10 boys with a convicted parent end up in custody themselves. The project involves an extensive programme of support to assist offenders to repair, develop and maintain healthy relationships while in custody, and the support continues after release. Prisoners who may be eligible to receive support are those who have no restrictions on contact with their children, and who will be resettling with their families in south Wales when they leave custody. That gives rise to the point about continuity.

As has often been observed—not least this morning—prisoners frequently have a wide range of complex interrelated problems that need to be addressed as part of a rehabilitation programme, and Invisible Walls helps offenders to find accommodation, employment, training, education and volunteering opportunities. As the hon. Lady says, the programme promotes physical and mental health—by addressing substance misuse for example—helps offenders to manage their finances, and manages offenders’ attitudes, thinking and behaviour, to give them the motivation to begin afresh.

The main focus of the project is on reducing reoffending and preventing prisoners’ children from turning to a life of crime by strengthening family ties. Research has shown that ensuring that a prisoner keeps in contact with his or her family while in prison has a direct effect in reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Some 7% of children in the UK will experience having a parent in prison before they leave school, and research shows that positive and regular contact with the imprisoned parent significantly improves a child’s outcomes, not only in school and at home but in later life.

An interesting aspect of what goes on at Parc is that prisoners are assigned a family integration mentor—FIM—who, as the hon. Lady knows, supports them and their family during the custodial period, and through the gate, into the community. The FIM links with other mentors, who help the offender and the family to address problems. Where we can arrange it, the support begins 12 months before an offender is released from prison and, crucially, continues during their first six months in the community. It therefore reflects very much what we have in mind for the system in the future, not just at Parc but elsewhere.

HMP Parc is operated by G4S, which set up the project in 2009 and, as the hon. Lady said, a number of outside agencies are now involved as well. She also referred to the invitation from Invisible Walls to schools in the Bridgend area to work with them to offer discrete and sensitive support to children with a parent in the prison, and she asked me to ensure that the Ministry of Justice has regular contact with the Department for Education. As she would expect, we have regular conversations about all the issues, and I will ensure that that project features in them, so that everyone, on both sides, is fully informed.

Part of the thinking behind the project is the need to move away from an inward-facing prison culture to an outward-facing approach, with strong partnership relationships with outside agencies, and that is precisely what our through-the-gate reforms are designed to achieve. What we can see going on in Invisible Walls is a good indication of the sorts of things that can work well elsewhere in the country too.

Invisible Walls received additional funding from the Big Lottery Fund in 2012 to expand the scheme from its original design, and that is an example of the sort of creative thinking we need if we are to make the big difference to reoffending that I spoke about earlier. The hon. Lady was right to point out that formal assessment of the project will not be complete until 2015, and we will carefully consider that assessment when it is available, but I hope that she can take it from what I have said today that we do not intend to wait for 2015 to see a number of elements of the project replicated in other places.

By opening up probation to a wider range of providers, we can bring additional skills and ideas into play, and the national probation service will retain its key role in managing risk, including the direct management of higher-risk offenders. The reorganisation of probation, and the creation of 21 new contract package areas, has presented us with an opportunity to consider release alignment. That is very much along the lines of what the hon. Lady was describing, regarding the continuity of approach that we all wish to see. It has long been recognised that closeness to home is an important factor in an offender’s resettlement process, and our reforms will strengthen existing rehabilitation services by drawing on the best the market has to offer and combining that with access to offenders at the start of their time in custody, and again before release. It might not be possible for certain longer-sentenced prisoners to stay in a local prison for the entire duration of their sentence because of needs attached to their sentence that can only be met elsewhere, but we intend that they be returned to a local prison for the few months leading up to their release.

Currently, 50,000 offenders each year are sentenced to custody for less than 12 months, and we anticipate that the majority of them will serve their entire sentence in a resettlement prison designated to their area. That means better continuity of supervision and rehabilitation services, as well as better family links and a network of prisons more specifically catering for the needs of that cohort of offenders.

Resettlement prisons are one strand of a comprehensive strategy of reform that seeks to tackle all aspects of reoffending. Invisible Walls displays the scope that exists for a wide range of organisations from the public, private, voluntary and community sectors to bring their skills to bear in enabling offenders to change their lives. I am glad that we have had the chance this morning to discuss the work of Invisible Walls and the wider context of offender management. No one imagines that changing entrenched patterns of offending is a simple matter, but the Government firmly believe that the measures we are putting in place will help to achieve a fundamental transformation, with enormous and lasting benefits for our society.

Sitting suspended.