How do prison reform, rates of recidivism, and reading to children all fit together? These might seem like odd things to all pull into the same sentence, but increasingly there is a convincing body of evidence suggesting that, along with other kinds of family contact, reading to and engaging in literacy education with their children may help prisoners break the cycle of reoffending following their release.
Got your attention? Great! But first we need to back up a bit. As various international studies have shown over many years, there’s compelling evidence to suggest that contact with family and friends is profoundly important not only for prisoners’ wellbeing, but also for reducing their rates of reoffending once they’re released. As prison reform advocate Lord Farmer (2017) puts it, “We cannot ignore the reality that a supportive relationship with at least one person is indispensable to a prisoner’s ability to get through their sentence well and achieve rehabilitation… Supportive relationships with family members and significant others give meaning and all important motivation to other strands of rehabilitation and resettlement activity.”
“Supportive relationships with family members and significant others give meaning and all important motivation to other strands of rehabilitation and resettlement activity.”
This conclusion is so well backed up by the research that in the UK, changes to prison policy have been put in place in order to make the prison experience less isolating, fostering family links as the most effective means of ensuring crime-free resettlement post-prison. But not all family contact is created equal: although most studies show unequivocal links between increased contact with loved ones and reduced recidivism, results become more complicated in the case of incarcerated fathers receiving visits from their children. In one high-quality study (Bales and Mears, 2008), a higher frequency of child visits was associated with higher rates of reoffending among male prisoners, and as the researchers put it,“it may be that such visitation imposes greater strain on inmates by leading them to become more viscerally aware of their inability to parent their children, leading to increased offending” (p. 314).
That’s where the reading-to-children part comes in. While the data on child visits seem to suggest there may be circumstances in which the overall effect of children’s visits on their incarcerated fathers’ desistance from crime can be negative, some studies have looked specifically at structured programmes in which children’s visits are conducted within a larger context involving parenting education or an emphasis on helping children with their literacy. The overwhelming conclusion from these studies is that such programmes can be enormously beneficial not just in helping male prisoners feel more connected to their children, but also in giving them a sense of educational achievement themselves – something sadly lacking from the histories of many prisoners.
An example of such a programme is FLiP (Family Literacy in Prisons), a UK project documented by Nutbrown et al (2017) in which prisoners were brought together in small groups to learn about child literacy and discuss ways to engage children in activities involving words, rhymes, book sharing, and early writing. After the workshops, a series of six family literacy-related visits were conducted, and as the authors report, many prisoners found it motivating to see their children in a different context from usual, with some fathers acknowledging that the workshops were an effective tool to help them relate better to their children(p. 7). As Farmer (2017) has noted in his review of the UK prison system, being expected to help children with their homework can be a powerful motivator for prisoners’ own learning, since it can “provide a significant fillip to men inside, some of whom feel they have never achieved anything in their lives that would make their children proud of them” (p.68). Along similar lines, positive results have been found for programmes that focus on teaching male prisoners parenting skills and providing them with education on fathering.
All in all, what’s clear from the research is that reform is needed in prison systems around the world in order for prisoners’ reintegration into society and desistance from crime post-release to be better supported. One of the key ways this can be achieved is through strengthening the bonds between prisoners and their loved ones and, in the case of incarcerated fathers, making sure the effects of their children’s visits are positive via prison parenting programmes that increase their sense of themselves as having something to offer their children. One ideal way this can be done – and it has the added benefit of providing these fathers with a sense of educational achievement themselves – is to involve them directly in their children’s literacy learning.
Bales, W. D. & Mears, D. P. (2008) Inmate Social Ties and the Transition to Society: Does Visitation Reduce Recidivism? Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency (45)3 pp 287–301
Farmer, M. (2017). The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners ’Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime. London: Ministry of Justice
Nutbrown, C., Clough, P., Stammers, L., Emblin, N. & Alston-Smith, S. (2017) Family literacy in prisons: fathers’ engagement with their young children. Research Papers in Education Published online 16 November 2017 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02671522.2017.1402085