Amid all the media debate over the current state of our prisons – violence, overcrowding, rape and sexual assaults, staff shortages – a very informative report issued this month by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) appears to have passed under the radar almost unnoticed. This is unfortunate because it deals with an important issue that affects the vast majority of prisoners.
The PPO bulletin, entitled Maintaining Family Ties, reviews the important role played by families in reducing reoffending and helping released prisoners settle back into the community. It can be found here.
As Nigel Newcomen, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, observes in the preface: “Maintaining family ties can help to prevent prisoners reoffending and can assist them to settle successfully in the community on release. Maintaining family contact while in prison also reduces isolation and the pain of imprisonment for both prisoners and families.”
|The PPO: Nigel Newcomen|
The PPO considers complaints from serving prisoners when all internal avenues of complaint have already been pursued, so in essence the bulletin reviews the substance of these formal referrals during the period 2009 to 2013 and what can be learned from the issues raised, as well as the way in which prison authorities have responded. It makes interesting reading for anyone concerned with penal policy, as well as for prisoners and their families.
One of the key observations is that prisoners, particularly those held in closed prisons, are often very limited in the forms of communication that they can use to remain in touch with their family members. Some of the points raised have already been covered in my previous blog posts, particularly in Prisoners: the Unnetworked where I explored some of the impacts of inmates being excluded from almost all modern communications technologies, including the Internet.
As the PPO bulletin notes: “Prisoners have limited means to keep in touch with their families: they can receive visits at the prison, send and receive letters by post (if they are sufficiently literate), make (but not receive) telephone calls, and, if eligible, attend close relatives’ funerals in the community through the temporary release scheme. In the main, however, they do not have legitimate access to the mobile telecommunications and information technology that so dominates personal communication in the community.”
|Payphones: no pay, no phone|
Of course, with many of our prison wings awash with illicit mobiles and SIM cards, cons who have access to these are able to communicate both with their families and friends, as well as criminal associates on the outside. As usual, those inmates who obey the prison rules are also those who tend to be the more disadvantaged. Moreover, cons who are unemployed, retired or who have no access to private cash from their families are severely limited in the amount of phone credit or stamps they will be able to purchase.
It has long been recognised that contact between serving prisoners and their families has the potential to reduce reoffending and can significantly improve outcomes in terms of successful resettlement on release. Even the Victorian prison regime recognised this and made provision for such visits.
In fact, the PPO bulletin points this out: “Research has indicated that receiving visits during imprisonment increases the likelihood of a prisoner reporting that they had found employment and accommodation on their release from prison, which in turn contributed to lower rates of reconviction in the year after release.”
|Visits: face-to-face for 90 minutes|
In other words, maintaining family ties is a positive penal policy that can be proven to benefit society at various levels, especially in the reduction in the number of victims of further crimes. All in all, it should be considered as a win-win situation for everyone concerned, including the taxpayer.
Recent budget cuts have seen some prisons discontinue what are called ‘lifer days’ when prisoners serving very long indeterminate sentences are allowed to spend a whole day with their close relatives, some of whom may have had very lengthy journeys. Whereas normal visits may only last for 90 minutes or two hours, lifer days offer opportunities for much more meaningful family contact. Sadly, this institution is now under serious threat from financial constraints, as are ‘family days’ when prisoners with young children can spend extended periods strengthening relationships with their partners and kids.
|Area for family visits|
Although not a lifer myself, I was privileged to have been able to participate in one of these ‘lifer days’ during a visit to another closed prison while I was working as an Insider. It was interesting to see just how important these special visits were to the prisoners and their family members, particularly their young kids who were able to run around and play games with their usually absent dads.
Security was low key and I was impressed at just how relaxed and friendly the atmosphere really was. Even the governors and screws were jovial and pleasant. I think that at the end everyone left feeling better. I know I did. It’s sad to think that prison budget cuts are depriving completely innocent children of these valuable opportunities to bond with their own fathers.
Moreover, as some of the case studies included in the PPO bulletin highlight, there are various ways in which the Prison Service undermines its own stated objectives in supporting prisoners to maintain contact with their families: “Prison Service Instructions and guidance fully support the maintenance of prisoners’ positive contact with family and friends and set out how prisons should facilitate this. Nevertheless, the Ombudsman still sees examples where prisons fail to achieve an appropriate balance between supporting family ties and ensuring security and public protection. Practical failures include prisons not processing applications in a timely manner, not following the procedures, failing to apply them in a fair and consistent way or not providing a reason for limiting contact between a prisoner and their family.”
|Turned away at the prison gate?|
Some of the specific problems raised include the cancellation of family visits without any notice, often leaving family members oblivious of the fact that they will be travelling, in some cases very long distances, only to be turned away disappointed and angry at the prison gate. These incidents are usually attributed to security alerts or ‘operational’ issues (generally staff shortages) and I can confirm from personal experience that cancellations of visits in these circumstances can cause considerable distress for both cons and their families.
Sometimes, a prisoner’s contacts with his or her family can be cancelled because of minor administrative errors. I well remember an incident at a D-cat (open prison) when an older married couple, who had been planning to spend time together when the husband had been granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) for the day, discovered at the gate that a clerk in the administration department had typed the wrong name on the actual paper licence (ROTL 7).
The wife – who had travelled a considerable distance – was therefore unable to collect her husband from the prison gatehouse and I saw them standing looking across the security barrier at each other, both sobbing their hearts out. It was cruel and unnecessary. However, the system was absolutely inflexible and without a governor grade available to authorise an amendment to the licence, other members of staff could do nothing, even had they wished to do so.
Another potential area where serious problems can occur is ROTL on compassionate grounds where close family members are near death or for funerals. Recent changes introduced by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) are likely to reduce significantly the number of prisoners who are granted compassionate leave. Moreover, shortages of escort staff are also likely to result in prisoners held in closed establishments not being able to be with their families during such crises.
|A final chance to say goodbye|
As the PPO points out: “Funerals are an important opportunity for the bereaved to pay their respects to the person who has died and to receive emotional support from relatives and friends. They are a significant part of the grieving process for anyone who has lost a close relative, and may be even more significant for prisoners who may not have been able to maintain regular contact before the death.”
Because of the unexpected nature of such emergencies – particularly following accidents or unforeseen illness – applications for ROTL on compassionate grounds can be made at very short notice. The PPO bulletin highlights that, on occasion, the prison authorities have been slow to process such requests or have failed to deal with the issue appropriately, sometimes causing great distress when inmates are left unable to attend funerals of their loved ones, thus compounding their grief.
An important issue that the PPO does not address in this report is the current practice of placing prisoners in establishments that are often located far away from their families, in some cases hundreds of miles away. This can severely limit opportunities for families to travel in order to visit, not least because of transport costs. Where prisoners’ families are in receipt of benefits they may be eligible for assistance through the government’s Assisted Prison Visits Scheme, however, the criteria used can exclude some families who are on moderate incomes, but not benefits.
|Prison: Visitor's Centre|
Even when financial considerations aren’t a bar to organising a visit, travelling long distances with family members who are elderly, infirm, very young or disabled can prove a logistical nightmare. I know of prisoners serving long sentences who have been transferred to prisons many miles away from their family home and, in consequence, they haven’t had a visit for years.
The PPO bulletin concludes by highlighting “straightforward steps that prisons can take to reduce the number of complaints related to maintaining family ties, and to ensure that complaints are resolved quickly and effectively through the internal system when they do arise.” A nice sentiment from an organisation that means well.
Imprisonment isn’t just a sentence served by the individual prisoner: it is also being served by his or her entire family. However, amid the present crisis in UK prisons – and with a political leadership that remains deeply in denial of these problems – I very much doubt we’ll see the maintenance of family ties by prisoners being considered as a priority area for positive action anytime soon, even though this is recognised as an evidenced-based means of reducing reoffending and supporting rehabilitation. You might almost conclude that Team Grayling is setting up cons and their families for failure.