Clinks has long championed the voluntary sector’s contribution to supporting prisoners and offenders. The breadth of experience and expertise demonstrated by our membership reinforces the importance of delivering the right services to the right people at the time of need.
Criminal justice policy and practice often focuses, for understandable reasons, on the offender. However, as funding contracts and some services fall away, there is concern that some much-needed support will disappear, especially to groups that may be considered a lower priority. Our members argue that families of offenders and prisoners are deemed as one such group; it is essential that Clinks shares the responsibility of pushing for better recognition and support of families’ needs.
How can this happen? And, indeed, why should it happen?
Imagine that someone close to you is suddenly removed from your life. They may be the parent of your child, the person paying the bulk of your housing costs, the main carer for you, if you are elderly or unwell. They may simply be someone you love and care for. Crime can have a devastating impact on victims. For children and other family members of someone who is arrested and detained, the effect can be equally distressing. This is why Clinks believes that a nationwide strategy to identify and support the families of prisoners is vital.
So why should this happen?
“The impact of imprisonment extends much wider than the men and women detained in custody…”
On the 20th October, Andrew Selous, Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation, delivered a well-received keynote speech at an event to raise awareness of the ways children are affected when a family member is in prison. The event, 200,000 Reasons To Care, was an opportunity to reflect on the lived experiences of family members affected by imprisonment, the creativity and innovation of the organisations supporting families and the government policies that influence everyday practice.
The Minister highlighted good practice within the Criminal Justice System (CJS) to strengthen the links between imprisoned parents and their children and pointed to the latest NOMS Instruction, that ‘outlines the role of family relationships in supporting rehabilitation and clarifies the roles of prisons and providers of probation services.’ The Minister also reminded us that the Troubled Families programme teams are being encouraged to work with offender management services to identify and support families with CJS involvement.
“My sons haven't seen their daddy for almost two months because he's 100-plus miles from home.”
Less than a month later, Michael Palin used his lecture for the Lord Longford Trust to again, raise awareness of the impact of imprisonment on the wider family. In his opening paragraph he stressed that ‘one of the most important elements in (preventing reoffending) is the family of the offender’. The lecture was delivered to a large, appreciative audience that included Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove.
In the week before the lecture, Palin had visited Pact to speak to families with experience of the isolation, stigma and uncertainty that starts at the moment of arrest and often continues post release. He recounted some of their personal stories, reminding us that many of the families are vulnerable themselves and often feel that they are being punished too.
As the lecture progressed, Michael Palin commended the essential role of the voluntary sector in delivering services that help prisoners maintain relationships with their children and family. Family engagement workers, mentors, telephone helplines for families, campaigning for better prisoners’ rights were all championed – and usually delivered – by the sector.
“I have got that bond back, created memories that will last forever.”
Much of that vital work was showcased on 20th October. Lynn Kelly of Partners of Prisoners (POPS) described the vital contribution of family engagement workers who help prisoners and their families keep connected from the first night in prison. Lynn told delegates that families should have a clear role in sentence planning to enable a smooth integration back into the family and community after release. Lee Stephenson, of Jigsaw Visitors Centre at HMP Leeds and Joanne Mulcahy of Pact Cymru stressed the importance of quality play for children both in terms of supporting children’s development and learning and nurturing child-parent relationships. NEPACS pointed out that children of different ages need different types of support; older children can be stigmatised and bullied, but their needs are often overlooked. NEPACS deliver targeted activities for teenagers as well as facilitating six-hour long themed visits with fathers in HMP Kirklevington Grange.
There are particular difficulties for mothers in prison. An estimated two thirds of women in prison in England have children under the age of 16, with 30% of the children being under five. Only one in five children of imprisoned women remain in their own homes. [i] Many stay with family friends or relatives, are fostered or adopted. The expense and time needed for long distance travel and the emotional impact on children, prisoners and the child’s carers mean that visits may become infrequent. Charlotte Parsons of Pact South West spoke about intensive work with imprisoned mothers and their children to facilitate enjoyable visits.
‘All children and young people should have a voice.'
So where next? Everyone attending 200,000 Reasons was there because they did care. The room was full of commitment, experience and compassion. Likewise, no one in the audience at the Lord Longford Trust lecture argued against Michael Palin. Yet, as budget cuts hit charities, local authorities and, indeed, the Ministry of Justice, how can we ensure that support for the families of prisoners is prioritised?
The delegates made the following recommendations:
- Avoid stigmatisation by changing the language we use. For instance, exchange the term ‘ex-offender’ to ‘person with convictions’. The offence is an act not an identity.
- Cite family days as an intervention, not a privilege. Under Article 9 of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child, a child has the right to contact with both parents if they are separated. Make visits family-led and friendly, with a range of appropriate activities. (There is a strong argument for this in Barnardo’s recent report ‘Locked Out: Children’s experiences of visiting a parent in prison’.)
- Support for children must acknowledge the diversity of their backgrounds including those from families with uncertain immigration status, those from families with little or no English and those with different needs including wheelchair users and children on the autistic spectrum.
- Appoint a person or service within each prison to undertake family work.
- Ensure that offenders and their families have opportunities to contribute to the development of services and feedback their experiences.
- Develop easier and more efficient processes for data-sharing between agencies.
Many of the above require attitudinal change, not money. The commitment and compassion must spread further afield.
[i] Statistics taken from Galloway, S., Haynes, A and Cuthbert, C. (2014) An Unfair Sentence – All Babies Count: A Spotlight on the Criminal Justice System http://www.barnardos.org.uk/an-unfair-sentence.pdfe
Patrice Lawrence is the Development Officer leading on Clinks’ work with organisations supporting the families of prisoners.