While families across the UK face uncertainties about when lockdown will end and they gather once again with friends and family, a family in Hampshire knows the pain of separation over all too well.
Four years ago, Phil and Di were expecting a baby girl together and looking forward to Christmas as a newly integrated family, with Di’s three children from a previous relationship. Then, they received a massive shock.
Two days after her birth, their daughter Rylie had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and was fighting for her life on the operating table.
Waiting to see if doctors could keep their little girl alive, the couple’s distress was compounded by another trauma. Phil was desperate to hold his little girl, to tell her things were going to be okay and spend precious moments with her – but he wasn’t allowed to be with her, or to hug Di as she waited outside the theatre alone.
Di told us: “I just begged for Phil to be able to come to the hospital. Rylie was in a really bad way; they didn’t think she was going to make it.”
It wasn’t Phil’s lack of care or desire that prevented him from seeing his new-born baby daughter. It was lockdown – not as we will all have experienced this year, but the lockdown uniquely imposed by a prison sentence. He found himself in a position where his past was directly impacting his present, and he was devastated.
“I accept that I had done wrong, but I wasn’t expecting to go into prison,” Phil admits. “I went into prison the week before Christmas and Di was eight months pregnant. We were looking forward to so much, but then our world collapsed around us.
“I was able to be on the phone all through Rylie’s birth and, in many ways, it was as if I was there. That was great, but the next day I learned she had been rushed into hospital. Instinctively I felt I should be there to support my family, but I couldn’t.”
Phil needed a miracle if he was going to be able to be with his daughter. On hearing the desperate situation the family were in, Spurgeons Invisible Walls colleagues presented the case to the prison Governor, requesting that she would allow Phil to be with Rylie and support Di; an extraordinary request that they never expected would be granted.
“It was life changing what we were able to do,” says Kerry Longhorn, Service Lead at Spurgeons pioneering Invisible Walls project at HMP Winchester.
“Requests like this being approved are not a given. Compassionate grounds are normally granted for someone to go to a funeral, but very much at the Governor’s discretion. We raised Phil’s case with the Governor and, miraculously, she said he could go! Very soon he was being escorted, albeit in handcuffs, to the intensive care baby unit to meet his little girl for the first time.”
Phil will never forget the first time he saw his daughter.
“Meeting Di at the hospital was an emotional experience for us both, but when I saw my little girl, that was amazing but also very frightening, seeing how she was with tubes hanging out everywhere,” he says.
On his return to prison, the Spurgeons team ensured that Phil was able to continue to be part of Rylie’s life and treatment and involved him in parenting.
“We liaised with the Cystic Fibrosis team at the hospital and two lovely nurses came to the prison so that Phil could hear about the care that Rylie would need,” says Kerry.
Phil was also allowed further visits to see his daughter and to be involved in phone calls with the medical teams providing for her care. Spurgeons’ actions enabled him to be a part of his daughter’s life, despite his circumstances.
Phil says, “I felt absolutely helpless, but it was the extra things Spurgeons did that made me feel involved. You were the first people to treat me like a normal person.’
Spurgeons is currently directly supporting 70 fathers at HMP Winchester to connect with their families.
“We recognised Phil as a dad, not a prisoner”, said Kerry. “We always tell those we support that we are not interested in why they are in prison; we are here for them as a dad.”
Phil is out of prison now and a happily married, hardworking dad who would tell you himself that Spurgeons had been a lifeline, enabling him to support his new-born baby and Di through an extremely dark and uncertain time for the family.
“It’s not just life changing for me, it was life changing for my wife and kids too, it absolutely kept us together. If I didn’t have the contact that Spurgeons had made possible, I don’t think that I would have the relationship that I have with them now.”
Christmas can be an especially difficult time, both for the dads in prison, and the families affected by a prison sentence – there were approximately 160,000 children who were not able to spend Christmas with their parent this year. Having a parent in prison can be detrimental to a young persons’ wellbeing as they are three times more likely to develop behavioural problems and often become isolated or excluded from mainstream schooling. Research shows that 65 per cent of boys with a convicted parent go on to offend themselves.
By working closely with the prison, fathers and their families, and Probation and Children’s Services, Spurgeons ensures that prisoners and their families are seamlessly supported from imprisonment to release so that the transitions are far less traumatic for parent-child relationships.1 Research by the University of Cambridge found that positive family relationships and frequent contact during a prison sentence leads to positive resettlement outcomes2.
Phil expresses just how much of a difference Spurgeons made for him and his family: “It was the difference between life and death for me. Seriously it was.”
Paul Ringer, Deputy Chief Executive of Spurgeons says, “From our experience, a strong family relationship, and the desire to get home, is helping dads in prison get their lives back on track, and stay on track, after release. We seek to establish greater safety, security and stability for children so that they can flourish as they grow and avoid the alternative which can cause young people to become involved in crime. “
1 Risk and Protective Factors in the Resettlement of Imprisoned Fathers with their Families
2 University of Cambridge 2012 – Losel, Pugh, Makson, Sousa and Lanskey
About Invisible Walls:
Spurgeons’ pioneering project Invisible Walls based at HMP Winchester, launched in 2011 and works closely with the prison, fathers and their families and Probation and Children’s Services to ensure that prisoners and their families are seamlessly supported from imprisonment to release.
Spurgeons Invisible Walls service won the 2016 Children and Young People Now Award for the Family Support Category for its work with prisoners and their families.
To learn more about Spurgeons’ work in Prisons and the Invisible Walls service, click here.