The Father's Group at the Suffolk County House of Corrections
By Matt MullinsBefore I started the group in January, the Director of Men's Services decided that the group would be open to fathers who were expected to be released within one year. Ten fathers signed up but a few dropped out right away. We've ended up with five or six fathers at each meeting
At my first group meeting, I asked a question that we always ask when a new person comes to any PHP group: "What rules should we follow so that the group works for you?" This helps establish that the group belongs to them and they must take responsibility for how it works. It took some coaxing, but the rules they adopted were the same as any PHP group. Everyone would be honest, respectful of others, listen carefully, and, of course, discussions would be confidential. PHP's mantra, "What's said in group, stays in group" resonated with them.
Unlike a typical PHP group, all the members of the prison group already knew each other. So we also discussed 'what-ifs,' meaning, knowing that nobody's perfect, what if we break a rule like talk outside about what someone said? How should we handle it? After several off-color jokes, the men agreed that we would all try our best but we would also be patient and understanding with one another. I also established that, although participation in group would be most useful, no one would be forced to participate. We would respect their right to pass or not discuss a topic. After the first group, I wrote the rules down, typed them up and brought them to the second group for review. They responded well to this. I think that they wanted to see that I would follow through and that I was taking the group seriously.
The inmates have responded well to a little more structure than we normally employ in a community group. They even asked if I could come up with an agenda or weekly topics. This isn't really how a PHP group is supposed to work. But my compromise was to have them produce a list of topics instead of coming up with a list myself. This was another way I made sure that the men knew this was their group, not mine or the prison's.
Generally speaking, trust is a major concern in this group. Everyone has acknowledged not trusting others, such as their baby's mama's family, or that they had lost the trust of loved ones and had to earn it back. We try to build trust within the group as a way of practicing what they will need to do once they are released.
Lastly, I have noticed that despite the unique stressors that the men face as a result of living in a prison setting, many of the parenting issues and concerns that they expressed were similar to those discussed in PHP community-based groups. These fathers have the same fears, anxieties, care for their children, hopes for the future, and strengths in parenting that I have seen in other PHP groups that I have facilitated. I have found these men to be thoughtful, caring, motivated, empathic and resourceful. The facilitator training was excellent preparation for doing the prison group. I provide structure and strive to create a safe space to talk but they have a lot of freedom to take the group in any direction they choose.