Responding to some of the key announcements in today’s Queen’s Speech, and recent announcements by Michael Gove, prisoners’ families who use Pact services have broadly welcomed the proposed changes, but sound notes of caution, and invite the Ministry of Justice to recognise and support the vital role of families as one of the most effective ‘crime-fighting agencies’ through continued dialogue.

The families welcomed a number of plans including the commitment to improve mental health support in the criminal justice system, the emphasis on prisons that are focused on education, and greater freedom for prison governors to innovate. 

They also pointed out that prisoners who are in regular contact through visits are about 40% less likely to re-offend after release, and asked for more support to enable them to spend time together and to work together to re-build positive family relationships. 

Furthermore, the families warmly welcomed the proposed greater use of in-cell telephones and Skype, as an enhancement, but warned against this being seen as the only solution, pointing out the real benefits of quality, face to face interaction.  

However, prisoners’ families wish to draw attention to a number of key concerns. They urged the government to ensure:

  • That new prisons are made physically accessible to families, as close to home as possible, with good affordable transport links to the prison gate.
  • A rolling out of prison-based Family Engagement Workers to support families to stay together.
  • Decent quality visitors' centres, children’s play areas and tea bars in prisons, which are clean, welcoming, child-friendly, and staffed by well-informed non-judgemental staff and volunteers.
  • Increased funds to the Assisted Prison Visits scheme, and opening up access to families on low incomes who currently get no support.
  • Longer and more flexible visiting arrangements for those who have to travel long distances.
  • Support for the most socially excluded prisoners’ families who lack ICT skills and access, to enable them to keep in touch, book visits online, and improve their life chances and the life chances of their children.

Many families have loved ones in prison with mental health issues, and there is a lack of adequate support in prisons or in the community for those who offend due to mental health problems. Families asked for proper counselling and therapeutic services, but pointed out that these would not be effective if mentally ill relatives are kept in over-crowded, under-staffed prisons.

A key recommendation from prisoners’ families is that governors and senior prison staff be provided with support to develop their leadership skills, and training in how to develop and manage prisons which have a pro-family culture. Some families spoke of their experiences of feeling as if they were being treated as criminals, rather than the people who offer prisoners the best chance of a crime-free life after release.

Families were also generally very positive about the proposed greater use of  'Release on Temporary License' (RoTL), however, they pointed out that in the past, when RoTL was in greater use, they were often contacted at very short notice by Probation and informed that a RoTL was being arranged for a family member, provided that they can stay in the family home.  For some families, the lack of any support around RoTL arrangements meant that they were placed under enormous stress and as a result it could sometimes be a negative experience which did not contribute to resettlement and rehabilitation.

Speaking on behalf of the families, Andy Keen-Downs, Pact CEO said:

"Prisoners’ families broadly welcome the prison reform plans being outlined, but the devil is in the detail. It is time for prisoners’ families’ voices to be heard loud and clear. We can either continue to treat prisoners’ families as the collateral damage of the justice system, or we can follow the advice of HM Inspector of Prisons and recognise that ‘an offender’s family are the most effective resettlement agency’."

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