While family relationships undoubtedly come top of the list of concerns for almost anyone who has been to prison or had a family member in prison, the importance of family ties in reducing reoffending and improving life chances for the children of imprisoned parents is yet to take centre stage in criminal justice policy-making. Voluntary sector organisations have long recognised the important role families can play. They have developed and delivered services that utilise the benefits of family ties for reducing reoffending and provide the support people need when a family member goes to prison. More recently, the Ministry of Justice and HM Prisons and Probation Service have begun to explore the significance of family ties. In 2014, a joint thematic review by Ofsted and HM Inspectorates of Prisons and Probation lent more weight to this approach, stating that, “an offender’s family are the most effective resettlement agency.”
The Farmer Review
Lord Farmer is a Conservative Peer who, having experienced some challenges in his early family life, advocates government policy and services which strengthen family ties as a way to help people to realise their true potential. In July 2016, the Ministry of Justice commissioned Lord Farmer, in partnership with Clinks, to lead a review that investigated how engagement with families in the adult male prison estate across England and Wales could reduce reoffending and address intergenerational crime.
The review team convened a task group chaired by Lord Farmer, with Clinks’ Chief Executive Anne Fox as the Deputy Chair. The group was made up of people with lived experience, voluntary sector organisations supporting men in prison and their families, and representatives from prison and probation services. Lord Farmer and the review team visited prisons, met with men in prison, their families, prison staff and experts from the statutory, voluntary and academic sectors. We also issued a call for evidence on National Prison Radio and distributed surveys for men in prison and their families through our members.
Alongside evidence from voluntary organisations and academics, Clinks received over 1,000 responses to the call for evidence from men in prison and their families. This gave us a fantastic evidence base and demonstrated the willingness of people involved in the criminal justice system to share their insights and experiences to improve the system.
The Review’s Findings
The review’s findings were extensive and varied but a number of consistent themes emerged:
“Prisoners live for visits and letters” [former prisoner]
- Family ties give men in prison hope. While other aspects of rehabilitation and resettlement such as employment or education were identified as important, many respondents to the review noted that significant relationships with people outside prison were essential in motivating men to change their lives for the better. These relationships allowed men to envision a future beyond prison and to move beyond the identity of ‘offender’. This aspect of hope was also seen as crucial to maintaining men’s emotional wellbeing and safety.
‘In the main, any movement or progression in family services in prisons has been led, developed and funded by the voluntary sector.’ [Diane Curry OBE, CEO Partners of Prisoners, member of the Farmer Review Task Group]
- The voluntary sector leads the way in developing and delivering good practice. While good practice existed in both private and public sector prisons, delivered by a range of agencies and partnerships, the evidence showed that voluntary sector organisations have been the pioneers of quality family work. They have innovated and honed best practice to provide effective holistic support to prisoners, their families and often to the prison staff as well. Examples include the development of visitors’ centres and family engagement workers, to delivering parenting courses and operating safeguarding phone lines for families to report welfare concerns about their family members. It is clear that the voluntary sector has to be a fundamental part of the solution if we are going to improve family services.
“I don’t know why they need to move people so much. They moved my son four hours away without even asking if we have a car. Families are never considered when they move people.” [Family member]
- Lots of good practice exists but services are patchy. The evidence demonstrated a broad range of good practice in family work in prisons across England and Wales. However, while some prisons have good services such as a visitor centre, play workers and parenting courses on offer, others have little to no provision. With prisoners regularly moved between prisons, the lack of consistency and continuity in support services was a significant issue for men and their families.
“Families are a good influence; prisons could use us to support prisoners.” [Family member]
- Families are assets. Overwhelmingly, the evidence demonstrated that families are an asset in reducing reoffending, supporting the welfare and safety of men in prison and, crucially, in providing the hope that men in prison need to begin a process of desistance from crime. Families support loved ones in prison emotionally, practically and financially. They often have the keenest insight into their family member’s mental health and the most realistic understanding of their needs both inside prison and on release. However, many families felt as though they were viewed with suspicion by the prison service and that they were shut out from the resettlement process.
- A local family offer at every prison. The Review recognises the need for consistent, high quality services at every prison to support people in prison to maintain and develop their family ties and to provide emotional and practical support to the families of those in prison. A key recommendation is for the Ministry of Justice to ensure that every prison has a visitor centre and visiting services; a staffing structure in place to support people visiting prisons; extended visits; family learning services; and a ‘gateway’ communication system to ensure that family members are able to report welfare concerns to prison staff and that these concerns are recorded and acted upon.
- Family ties should be considered in transfer decisions. Men in prison and their families were significantly impacted by the tendency for prisoners to be regularly moved between prisons. This affected families’ ability to visit their loved ones and to keep track of their welfare, while it could also disrupt prisoners’ engagement in parenting and relationship courses. The Review recommends that the impact on family ties is considered when making decisions about transferring an individual and that anyone moved out of their home area should be moved closer to home as soon as possible.
- Improved relationships for those without family ties. As well as exploring what works for men with family ties, the Farmer Review also explored the difficulties experienced by those with loose or complex family ties. This included men who had been through the care system and men whose offences prohibited or complicated their family contact. The Review recommends that prison governors should monitor which prisoners are not receiving visits and ensure that these prisoners are supported to form positive relationships with people in the community or peers in the prison. This may involve reconnecting with family members, or linking individuals to mentoring services.
Clinks is delighted that the final report of the Farmer Review has now been published and warmly welcomes the Secretary of State’s comments that “Families can play a significant role in supporting an offender”.
We look forward to working with the Ministry of Justice and HM Prisons and Probation Service to raise awareness of the findings of the Review and to implement its recommendations. Clinks will also continue to champion the work of the voluntary sector in this area and to ensure that the voluntary sector is engaged in policy making on family services in prisons, as well as in furthering the recommendations of the Farmer Review.
In early September Clinks will publish a briefing which will provide an overview of the Review’s findings and recommendations and outline what this means for the voluntary sector. In September, we will hold a launch event to bring together families organisations in the voluntary sector and key stakeholders to celebrate the publication of the Review’s report and discuss the future of work to maintain and develop family ties, reduce reoffending and support the children of imprisoned parents.
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It is imperative that government prioritises and resources the tackling of race inequality in the criminal justice system. It is crucial that voluntary orgs led by and focussed on racially minoritised people are listened to, taken seriously and consulted in these conversations. https://twitter.com/HMIProbation/status/1451073306791223296