Love from behind bars: A prison's scheme for inmates to maintain family life


By AGENCY

A German projects helps fathers in prison stay close to their families. — Photos: BORIS ROESSLER/dpa

THERE are many things that are tough about prison, and maintaining relationships with those on the outside isn’t the least of them.

Inmates who are parents are faced with particular difficulties as they might miss out on crucial years in their children’s lives. To help prisoners and relatives to maintain relationships – or rebuild them if needed – one facility north of Germany’s financial capital of Frankfurt has introduced monthly family days.

The scheme allowing him to see his two primary-school-aged children on a regular basis has helped him to experience some everyday family life, one prisoner says.

The visits, supported by the kids’ mother, are emotionally upsetting and beautiful at the same time, he says. Despite the circumstances and the setting, the encounters with his son and daughter are quite natural, and playing usually takes centre stage, according to the inmate.

The family days are organised by prison chaplain Barbara Zöller and two social workers as part of a father-child project in the Butzbach facility once a month. Two further prisons in the region are also participating in the scheme.

Inmates and their children can play together, do arts and crafts or simply have a little chat in a friendly environment, to enjoy a bit of normal family life during the visits. These are also open to inmates convicted of extremely serious crimes like femicide.

Another prisoner, who killed the mother of his four children more than 11 years ago and is now serving a lengthy sentence, wasn’t sure whether regaining his kids’ trust after the “horrific offence” which he says he did not plan or want, would ever be possible.

For the 57-year-old, it’s been a long journey of many small steps to rebuild the relationship with his children with the help of many people, and the family day programme.

Those visits also offer the children space to ask questions, allowing them to process the events that led to their parent’s imprisonment and understand them as part of their own reality.

Faced with stigma

Children and the relatives of prisoners in general are often faced with shame and stigma, says Zöller, therefore it is important to be as open and child-orientated as possible. Books are one way to help children to understand the situation and also alleviate stress and concerns, she says.

A pastor with additional training in systemic family therapy, Zöller recalls a five-year-old who once took her hand during a visit.

The boy pointed to the prison bars on the window and said: “I know where we are, but mummy doesn’t.”

The child’s mother had so far not told him about his father’s imprisonment, afraid he’d tell others at daycare.

While that was understandable, concealing the truth or even lying to children is not advisable in the long term, says Zöller.

Children usually understand much more than their parents think they do, according to the therapist. After such a radical event as imprisonment, “it’s important that children feel they can continue to trust both parents.”

To counteract nagging questions, rumours and exclusion at day care or school, Zöller recommends talking to teachers or educators and asking them to support the children and intervene if necessary.

Zöller knows from experience that even employees of youth welfare services sometimes have reservations when it comes to dealing with the families of inmates.

To break down barriers and increase awareness for their needs, she recently invited local youth welfare office employees on a tour of the prison highlighting the benefits of the family visit scheme.

A worker at Butzbach prison in Germany, which has a scheme that helps inmates connect with relatives outside.A worker at Butzbach prison in Germany, which has a scheme that helps inmates connect with relatives outside.

Right to see parents

In Germany, children generally have a right to contact with both parents.

The 57-year-old inmate says he has repeatedly sought to have frank conversations with his children, some of whom are now adults. The last time, on a supervised outing with one of his daughters, she wanted to know what had led to her mother’s killing, he says.

The inmate had already fought to maintain contact with his children during pre-trial detention, which took place in another prison. After a thorough examination of whether visits could take place without harming the children, his request was granted, he says.

He’s very grateful for that, he says, as well as for the support he and his children received from therapists and a social worker from day one.

The aim was “to ensure that the children didn’t lose their father after they had lost their mother”, says the inmate.

Zöller’s work with the inmates’ relatives goes beyond organising family visits. She also offers counselling by phone, supervises and supports inmates’ children when they are on a phone call with their parent, organises opportunities for partners to visit and helps prepare the inmates and their families for release.

And she’s always available to talk after a prisoner returns from the temporary release, recalling one inmate’s story in particular.

Each year that the inmate had spent in prison, the family would put a present for him under the Christmas tree, even though he was not there to celebrate with them. The presents were kept in a cupboard until one day, the father was allowed to return home on temporary release for the first time.

When his son asked him to unpack all the presents at once, the inmate didn’t quite know how to act, Zöller recalls.

Another prisoner once complained that his first visit home had been “horrible,” as when he arrived at the flat, his wife and three children had been sitting on the sofa, with no space left for him.

What may seem like a very minor grievance after years spent in jail actually serves as a great image of what many prisoners go through emotionally when returning to their families after release, Zöllner says. – dpa

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