Insight - There are 9,500 men in prison and many of them have children, but how often do we think about them as fathers? Insight's reporter Teresa Cowie has been inside to find out how fatherhood could be channelled toward reducing reoffending
The line-up of visitors in reception at Northland Regional Corrections Facility is dominated by children dressed in their smartest clothes; boys with hair neatly parted to the side and girls in summer dresses. They are heading to an event they've been looking forward to - a visit with their Dads where they will get to play, read stories and have a family photo taken together.
A row of pale, green standard issue Department of Corrections pushchairs are lined up against a wall, ready to ferry the smallest in the group into the prison (parents are not allowed to use their own in case anything is smuggled in).
As the children enter the gatehouse, prison guards ask them to 'do a twirl' in front of a body-scanning machine. Anything they bring has to go through an airport-style conveyor belt x-ray - where it's checked for contraband - the obvious stuff like weapons or drugs - but also blu-tack or chewing gum that could be used to make weapons or be stuffed into keyholes.
The session the children are going to is a fairly recent addition to the laminated schedule that hangs on the wall of the visiting room. It's called a "child-centred" visit. Most other visits involve sitting on fast food restaurant-style orange plastic chairs that are fastened to the ground. Only one hug at the beginning, and end of the visit is allowed, and everyone has to stay put in their seats.
Yet many of the children can't sit still for long while the inmates and their adult visitors chat, and they end up playing in the children's reading corner away from their fathers. But today, instead of having to sit quietly, they will get to play with their dads. Child-centred visits and school holiday programmes were introduced about four years ago as a way to maintain the bond between father and child.
Corrections doesn't know how many men in prison are fathers, it doesn't collect this kind of data centrally. It says on the occasion that it does ask inmates about their children, the information is kept in their individual file. Not all men in prison are involved with their children before arrest - when asked, some say they don't even know if they have children or how many. Corrections' best guess, drawn from 2013 Census data, is that about 19 percent of men would have been directly parenting their children when they went to prison. The data showed the men had on average 1.9 children, but Corrections says that's likely to be higher.
In the visiting hall and outside in a brightly painted play area, men in bright orange overalls are talking, playing and reading with their children. One Dad is playing peekaboo with his son through the window of a Wendy house, while beside them a little girl is smearing paint from her artwork onto her dad's hand, and pretending to paint his nails with her brush.
Acting Senior Corrections Officer in the Visits and Child Protection Department, Lisa Rae, says before this type of visit started most of the dads didn't have any idea about how to talk to, or play with their children, and they would often ignore them.
"When we started [the visits], they didn't even know how to get down on the floor and play a game. We were teaching the men and the children, because they probably hadn't had that at home."
An inmate, Pete*, admits he hardly made any effort with his son in the brief time he was at home during stints in prison. He's 29 and has been inside most of the past decade. He now phones his 6-year-old son everyday and looks forward to his visits every Saturday. As he's matured he's become more aware of the importance of building a strong relationship with his son, and he's happy he's come to this understanding now. But it also worries him.
"One thing I'm afraid of is that we don't really have as good connection as we possibly could have. I just worry that when he grows up he resents me for coming into this place."
Those who run the parenting programmes he's taking at the prison say he's made huge progress - he's far more affectionate and attentive to his son.
Pete will likely be leaving prison in a few years’ time, so one way he is preparing to be a responsible dad is by learning some basic household skills. He's now living in what's known as 'Self-care'. It's a flatting-style situation with other inmates in a sectioned-off area inside the prison walls dotted with small plain houses. There's a large vegetable garden cared for by the men, and inside the houses there are no cells. Each inmate has his own bedroom and there's a living room and a shared kitchen. Inside one, there’s mince defrosting in sink - Pete's on dinner duty tonight and he's cooking nachos.
Like most people in prison, Pete had become institutionalised. He was used to being told what to do, what to wear, when to get up and when to go to sleep.
Watch, read and listen to more prison stories from Teresa Cowie
- Imprisoned by meth (Winner: NZ Radio Awards - Best Documentary)
- Can working prisons stop reoffending?
While that predictable routine is necessary for the smooth and secure running of the prison, it doesn't necessarily make for responsible parenting on the outside. It's easy to forget simple things like how and when to cook a meal, how to budget and buy the groceries, or even to remember to hang out the washing. Here, the prisoners have to learn or re-learn all of this, work together, get along, be patient, be organised - all of the things that dads will need to do when they are again responsible for their children.
Dr Tess Bartlett, a research fellow at the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre in Melbourne, has studied the experience of fathers in prison and says while some prisons offer parenting courses and special visits, there is still a real disconnect between the concept of an individual as a prisoner, and the idea of these men as fathers with children who love and need them. Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high - the most recent available figures show that nearly a third of those released from prison end up back inside within a year. She says fatherhood needs to be brought to the front and centre of the way men with children are rehabilitated.
"Research shows that fathers who maintain contact with their children while in prison have more positive parenting post release, and they have better success rates in terms of employment and are less likely to commit crime. So the evidence is pointing [at the fact] that this is something that should be a key priority for Corrections."
Department of Corrections Chief Custodial Officer, Neil Beales, says there is currently no strategy that prioritises fatherhood.
"You can just have one specific strategy, because there are too many factors involved."
Beales says violence, abuse, drug and alcohol dependencies, and mental health issues need to also be dealt with, and a different approach is needed for every inmate.
"You need to look at each person as an individual, and to get them back onto a pathway where offending becomes less and less a part of their lives to the point where it disappears. Parenting is just one facet of that.”
For Pete, leaving prison and being a good dad means leaving behind the expensive lifestyle his crime used to fund.
"I actually think my life will just be the simple things, like going to the beach as the sun’s setting and having some fish and chips, and going for a swim - just real simple things that don't even cost any money. All it is, is a bit of time."