Society is becoming increasingly punitive. The prison population is constantly growing, and sentences are becoming longer. The justice system has come to rely on imprisonment as the default method of punishing offenders, while prisoners are seen as inherently bad people who deserve all the pains they receive as part of their punishment.
As a result, it has become very easy to just accept the negative impact of imprisonment on prisoners’ families. Unlike in some states in the US, there are no conjugal or overnight family visits in England and Wales. Prison visits are relatively short (one to two hours is the norm) and infrequent (usually once or twice a fortnight). Longer family visits do occur, but only a few times a year.
This is a problem. First, prisoners’ family links are important because positive, stable family relationships are directly linked to less re-offending. So greater support for family links could benefit all of society.
Second, British prisons are in turmoil. Levels of prison violence have skyrocketed since 2015, and prison suicides are at their highest since records began. Yet research has also shown that more frequent family contact is associated with reduced prison misconduct. Greater support of family contact would also be good for the prison system.
This is not to say that all family links ought to be supported, as some prisoners are, after all, abusive or violent to their families. Yet there is no evidence that the majority of families would not be better off with increased contact with the prisoner in question.
Nevertheless, prisoners’ families ought not to be seen only as useful tools for making our prison system better. Their plight should be made more visible. Research shows, time and again, that imprisonment results in numerous negative consequences for these families.
These include financial consequences such as the loss of a breadwinner, stigmatisation, and the practical difficulties that come with travelling long distances to visit.
It is estimated that about 200,000 children in England and Wales are affected by parental imprisonment. This is more than the number of children in care. Yet no government body or official is responsible for engaging with their needs. They remain, on a policy level, a hidden population.
There is certainly some excellent work being one in order to keep family links alive. For instance, the Storybook Dads scheme allows imprisoned parents to record bedtime stories for their children. Video calls are also being introduced in a prison in England as I write.
Often, prisoners are held far away from their families, and visiting may frequently be financially or practically difficult. Video calls would allow for more frequent contact, and may allow prisoners to engage in their family’s life to a greater extent than normal visits currently do. They could, for instance, be used to allow prisoners to help their children with their homework.
Raising the bar
A voice mail service run in 100 of the country’s prisons by a social enterprise called Prison Voicemail highlights the innovative ways modern technology can be used in this context. One child was able to record herself playing a musical instrument, allowing her imprisoned father to be a part of her musical development. Video calls would provide greater opportunities for such familial engagement. And the introduction of this technology could be a sign that the prison system is finally accepting the importance of maintaining strong family links.
As excellent as these developments are, what is really needed is a leader in the government who will take the links between prisoners and their families seriously. Moreover, as ever, there needs to be funding. In an underfunded and understaffed prison system, little can be done in terms of meaningful engagement with prisoners and their families. Many of the prison visiting centres and prisoners’ family support organisations are run by charities with few resources. One organisation, AFFECT, provide telephone and face-to-face support for prisoners’ families across the UK, but is small and dependant on donations and volunteers.
But at a time when prisons are in turmoil, prisoners’ family relationships should be recognised and supported. After all, we chose imprisonment as a key method of punishing crime. We can also choose not to punish their spouses and children. Instead, working with the prison institution, appropriate value can be placed on another institution which, in most contexts, is seen as being key to leading a good life – the family.