A special group for dads in prison allows men to spend quality time with their children. Gavin Havery spoke to members of the HMP Durham Friday night homework club.

CHILDREN in their school uniforms sit and chat, happily munching sandwiches and crisps in the visitors centre before the homework club starts.

The visitors centre is much like a village community centre café, with a hatch serving drinks and snacks as well as a play area for youngsters.

But when everyone has arrived, and is logged into the system, the mums, grans, partners and kids will carefully cross a busy road, pass through well-guarded security gates and enter HMP Durham.

Behind the walls of the 200-year-old prison are sons, partners and husbands, and the fathers of these children.

The jail, a reception prison which includes defendants on remand from across the North-East, can hold up top 1,000 people but only 11 are currently allowed to take part in the Friday night homework club.

It is run by the regional prisoners’ family charity Nepacs and gives men the chance to see their children in a more relaxed environment where they can cuddle them and chat about what is going on at school.

Normally visiting time is strictly regimented where they sit across the table from one another and cannot make contact to prevent the passing of contraband.

John, whose partner, Sarah, has brought his ten-year-old daughter, Daisy, to see him, said: “You get to sit with and engage in activities with your family.

“It gives me the incentive to keep my head down and work hard to keep the privilege of getting to see my family each Friday. It means everything to me.”

Sarah, who was on her third visit, said it was a much better environment for children and meant prisoners could interact with them as if they were at home.

She said: “We like to colour in, and are into crafts so we sometimes make him a little card that he can take back to his cell with him.”

For Lucy it is hard seeing her son, Stephen, locked up but she knows it is important for him to maintain a relationship with his eight-year-old daughter, Ava, so she brings her to the club.

Ava said: “We do crafts and at Christmas we made decorations for the tree, we made Santas and Rudolphs. It is better than at home.”

Lucy said waiting for the outcome of the court case was a stressful time for the family, but the visits did help.

She said: “It is good coming here so we can see him and it is a very relaxed environment.”

Stephen, who has been locked up since October on remand awaiting his court hearing, said the smaller groups means the kids are more open and it is less intimidating for them.

He said: “It allows you to bond properly. If I was stopped from doing it, I would be very upset.”

Both prisoners and their families are full of praise for the staff and volunteers from Nepacs who organise and coordinate the visits among many other services for those being processed through the region’s criminal justice system.

The organisation was founded in 1882 as the Durham Discharged Prisoners Aid Society, by Durham Prison chaplain, George Hans Hamilton, to support men and women leaving the institution.

As the 20th century progressed the work was taken over by the Probation Service and the society began working with the families of prisoners, becoming the North East Prison After Care Society.

By 1962 the organisation was running visitor centres and organising caravan holidays for people across the region and in 2001 Nepacs, going by the acronym only, became a registered charity.

Staff and volunteers work with families and offenders from their court appearances and first days behind bars to their release date and reintegration into society.

Nepacs is currently looking for volunteers to get involved in its rewarding work, whether it is to look for experience and career opportunities or just to give something back to society.

Volunteer coordinator Emma Price said: “The main aim is for volunteers to support families during what is a really difficult time for them. Maintaining relationships can be difficult normally but putting prison into the mix can make it extremely challenging so our volunteers are offering crucial support. ”

Names have been changed to protect identities. To get involved contact 0191-375-7278 or log on to nepacs.co.uk