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International Day of Parents: the vital importance of family relationships for those in prison

It is well known that prisoners who maintain contact with their families are significantly less likely to reoffend on their release. During the pandemic, work to support those ties faced new challenges. Following International Day of Parents, Martin Kettle considers some of the work by prisons to maintain the vital relationship between parents and children.

Last week marked the International Day of Parents.

Shona Minson of Oxford University points out that 300,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment each year, and, during our inspections, we constantly meet parents who are in prison.

The pandemic was a tough, tough time for the families split by imprisonment. The impact of not being able to touch or hug, which was agonisingly familiar everywhere, was harder than I at first realised in the prison visits hall.
Martin Kettle, Prison Inspector

The pandemic was a tough, tough time for the families split by imprisonment. The impact of not being able to touch or hug, which was agonisingly familiar everywhere, was harder than I at first realised in the prison visits hall. The atmosphere is never easy, with uniformed officers necessarily positioned round the room, but even more stilted when you just can’t touch.

We have been surprised to find how slowly many prisons have returned to the level of visiting that they provided before 2020. Some still don’t allow as many visitors at one time as they did four years ago. It’s almost as if it visits have slipped down the priority list. The number of visitors that remand prisoners can have is even more variable: we have found up to three a week in one prison, but a maximum of three a month in others. The situation of mothers in prison is often especially acute. Recent estimates suggest nearly 18,000 children are separated from their imprisoned mother each year, and about two-thirds of women in prison are the primary carer of a child; but, in a prison we visited recently, a third of the population did not receive visits.

‘Family Days’, which have long been a great feature of many prisons, are an extended visit, often including the lunch period, with activities for parents and their children to share. These too are back in many prisons, but it’s often been slow. Children’s play areas are also not back in use in all prisons.

There have, though, been some significant improvements. The texture of prisoners’ contact with family has been much improved by in-cell phones, which are now in almost all prisons, and by the secure ‘email-a-prisoner’ scheme: in the early days it was for incoming emails only, but now nearly everywhere prisoners can send as well as receive messages. One prisoner told us that the emails, which the prisoner receives printed out, mean he and his daughter don’t have to use expensive phone time for swapping practical information.

Also, video calling is in all prisons. COVID-19 led HMPPS to implement it at impressive speed, resolving very tricky security and technical issues along the way. In immigration detention, where people are often suddenly and painfully divided from family, video-calling has been allowed for some time, with suitable security measures. That was not possible at all in prisons pre-COVID, but now it is. It’s a big plus, especially where prisoners are drawn from a wide area and it is often hard for family to visit.

While these technological advancements are impressive and to be welcomed, we would also like to see a return to more traditional visits.

A prison visits hall can be a reasonably welcoming place, or a place of awkwardness and pain. The difference does not lie in whether there’s a Disney mural or colourful furniture. The attitude of people is even more important than the setting: the conduct of the staff that welcome visitors, book them in, take them into the prison, search them, explaining everything as they go. I have a happy memory of being Father Christmas in the visits hall at Whitemoor high security prison years ago, in a pretty austere place but with everyone making an effort.

Last week I was in HMP Grendon and the visits development manager, Tressa, was doing an amazing job putting everyone at ease. In a prison like that she could know practically all the regular visitors and she did, and they were glad to see her. The other staff took their cue from her, and were friendly and helpful at the same time as being vigilant for all the security and safety angles.

The charity Storybook Dads now works in around 100 prisons, having started 20 years ago in Devon. The basic model is simple and powerful – the prisoner records a bedtime story which is sent home to their children. There’s a system to make sure it is all done safely. Some 5,000 prisoners take part each year. And of course there is Storybook Mums as well as various spin-offs and variations on the concept around the country.

Some prisons, such as Parc and Doncaster, have a well-established track record for supporting family ties. When we inspected Doncaster last year, for example, the ‘Families First’ team was running ‘Daddy Newborn’, offering a supervised, well-equipped nursery room for a parent to bond with their child; relationships courses; and a ‘family album’ scheme in preparation for Mother’s Day, with the family support worker taking photographs of prisoners with their mothers. Sensory equipment was also available for use in a private room, for visitors with neurodiverse conditions.

Almost six years ago, Lord Farmer’s original review on the importance of family ties, in terms of well-being and rehabilitation alike, made powerful recommendations. We find a lot of good work going into protecting and supporting family relationships around the prison estate – this blog has only mentioned a few examples. If leaders in all prisons can put as much effort, resource and imagination into this area as those leading the field, there is plenty of room for hope.