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Prisoners' Families

Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group held on
1st April 2014 at 5.00 pm in Committee Room 5, House of Commons

Prisoners’ Families

Deborah Cowley, Director, Action for Prisoners’ Families
Andy Keen–Downs, Chief Executive, Pact
Gillian and Cassie: Members of Prisoners’ Families

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, in the chair
Lord Bradley
Baroness Howe of Idlicote
Lord Low
Baroness Masham of Ilton
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
Lord Taylor of Warwick

Lord Hodgson opened the meeting by giving apologies on behalf of Lord Ramsbotham, who had been detained on other parliamentary business.  He also warned the meeting that he and fellow peers would probably need to leave at some point to vote, though they would return. Finally he reminded members about the next meeting, which would be about Liaison, Diversion and Healthcare, and would take place at 5pm on Tuesday 13th May in Committee Room 5. The speakers would be Kate Davies, Head of Public Health, Armed Forces and their Families; Janice Langley, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes; and Jenny Talbot, Director of the Care not Custody Programme, Prison Reform Trust.

The current meeting, on Prisoners’ Families, would take us into an important and often neglected area of the criminal justice system, but one which was, as members knew, vital to the successful rehabilitation and resettlement of offenders. He was pleased to introduce the speakers: Deborah Cowley, from Action for Prisoners’ Families and Andy Keen-Downs from Pact. We would also hear from two family members, Gillian and Cassie, about their experiences of the system, which would be very important.

Deborah Cowley began:
‘Action for Prisoners’ Families has worked for 40 years for the wellbeing of prisoners’ families and more recently those of all offenders as well. We have 2100 members drawn from the voluntary, public and private sectors and a range of disciples. 300 of our members are relatives of prisoners and offenders, who want to influence policy and practice themselves, and our work is underpinned by an on-going dialogue with our members and others.

We always try to have a presentation by a family member at each of our development seminars and at one of these our family presenter was very distressed but still wanted to address the seminar. She had been looking after her small grandson while her daughter was in prison where she was doing well on a drugs programme and was nearing release. Our member had a good relationship with the prison and had worked with them on a resettlement plan. Suddenly her daughter was moved to another prison where our member tried to establish a dialogue but she was ignored. On release her daughter went to an unsuitable hostel where she quickly resumed the dangerous behaviour that had previously led to her offending and had, on the day of the seminar, disappeared. Our member feared that her daughter’s, and her grandson’s mother’s life, was in danger, and felt utterly helpless.

We find at Action for Prisoners’ Families that when we talk about prisoners’ and offenders’ families there is an assumption that we are talking about their needs, and the support that they need. Whilst it is important to acknowledge that families do suffer when their relative is in the criminal justice system, and they often face additional difficulties, including sometimes having problematic relationships with prisoner or offender relatives, by and large they see themselves as a source of support for their relatives and strongly resist being characterised as victims. Relatives play a key and often overlooked role in rehabilitation.

Families support their relatives in spite of the ways in which the criminal justice system strains family life by, for example:  harsh sentencing, leading to more families being separated from relatives by imprisonment; long, difficult and costly journeys to visit relatives in prison; churn – families have to get used to a new regime and a new journey; uncertainty about the future – uncertain release dates for IPP prisoners and confusing and sometimes rigid conditions for recall to prison; curfews, which mean that offenders’ associates come into the home rather than meeting outside; and expensive and hard to access phone calls.

Those who have studied desistance say that it can only be understood within the context of human relationships; not just relationships between workers and offenders (though these matter a great deal) but also between offenders and those who matter to them. The focus is often on offenders’ risks and needs but they also have strengths and resources that they can use to overcome obstacles to desistance. These include strengths and resources in their social networks. Supporting and developing these capacities is a vital dimension of criminal justice. Interventions based only on developing the capacities and skills of people who have offended will not be enough. Criminal justice services also need to work on developing social capital, and newly forming identities (such as ‘worker’ or ‘father’).

Families could be – and in the best examples are – partners in rehabilitation. There are examples where family engagement in sentence planning has been very successful. NOMS acknowledges that this is desirable but they worry about the cost implications. Families in our family advisory groups tell us that the kind of engagement that they would like is unlikely to be costly. We are hoping to raise funds to research these costs, so that we can enter a dialogue with NOMS about this. Some prisons run family forums where relatives and prison staff meet regularly to discuss prison policies and procedures and explore opportunities for improvement.

In the much smaller number of cases where families represent an obstacle to desistance, engagement with families is still very important. The chance of successful rehabilitation will be improved if criminal justice services work in partnership with community based family services on issues such as mental health problems, drug and alcohol misuse or damaging relationships.

All too frequently though, families report being ignored, overlooked and shut out of decision making. This experience of helplessness is one of the greatest strains on prisoners’ and offenders’ relatives. If the criminal justice system is to make the most of its resources, it will need to draw on families as a support for offenders on their path to desistance and must also ensure that their services are designed to minimise damage to families. Incorporating this work with families adds value to a range of services such as housing, mental health and employment - not just those aimed at family welfare.

NOMS does acknowledge the special role of families and has recently commissioned work to support the delivery of interventions to maintain and strengthen family relationships. A genuine shift in perspective to acknowledge the role of families as partners, in addition to delivering ‘interventions’, could bring about changes in day to day practice that minimise the damage done to families by the criminal justice system and that release families’ considerable potential to support rehabilitation.

I am pleased to introduce Gillian, who is a member of the Family Members Advisory Group that meets regularly to advise Action for Prisoners’ Families on our work.’

Gillian began by explaining that Deborah had given her ‘Prisoners’ Families as a Resource in Rehabilitation’ as a brief, and she had decided to present her talk as a quick SWOT analysis. She continued:

‘Firstly, the strengths:  The first one is the families themselves. Many are hugely supportive without condoning the offending behaviour, which they are able to separate from the person. I know there is a lot more to my son than his offending and I’ve learned a lot about unconditional love. Many family members are also intelligent and well-educated. They want their family member to be rehabilitated rather than damaged by prison and can do a lot to keep up morale and to counter the negative culture of prison. When my son was in prison for three years, I thought that was one of my main roles: to bring the outside world, and the culture that he had come from, into prison.

Another strength is found in enlightened Governors and staff, especially those I have met in education and psychology, who have treated both me and my son as people.

But there are some significant weaknesses. The system makes communication with prisoners seemingly as difficult as possible. Sometimes you don’t even know where they are, so you don’t know which prison to write to, and the visiting arrangements are labyrinthine, everywhere, and different in each prison. Another is that prisoners are so far from home. Many family members do not have the resources – any or all of physical, emotional, or financial resources, or the time - to visit frequently where the prisoner is at a distance, or far from public transport. I cannot imagine what the taxi fares are for some of the women I meet. Building bigger prisons is bound to exacerbate this problem, I would have thought.

On to opportunities: technology offers huge opportunities, both for easier phone calls and the possibilities of video calls.  We know there have been successful trials of putting phones in cells. Prisoners, their families, and even officers agree that it has been beneficial, so it would be a good idea to roll it out. Prisoners want to phone home in the evening when families are in. In many prisons, prisoners are locked in their cells in the evenings and pressure on the few ‘wing’ phones is enormous. There are terrible queues, leading to short conversations. We know from trials that prisoners phoned their wives, girlfriends and mothers, by the way, rather than their mates, which was probably not expected. This is another signal of how supportive families are.

I have been thinking about the idea of establishing video links, which would be brilliant for allowing prisoners contact with older or disabled relatives, or those at a distance. It would also be a way to keep in touch with their children, so that children might be spared both the long journeys and the realities of prison visiting. It isn’t very nice for children visiting prison, and I worry a lot about the children I see.  Video links would be amazing in that way, and for those prisoners who don’t get visits too, of course.

Finally, threats: the attitude of some prison staff is an obstacle to working with prisoners’ families. Sometimes they treat us like dirt, probably the same ones who don’t treat prisoners very well either, and that attitude needs to be worked on.

A second threat is a pandering to public attitudes, which are quite punitive in large parts of society, but not all. As a society we have gone beyond locking prisoners up and throwing away the key. Prisoners are going to return to the community, so public attitudes need shifting from retribution to rehabilitation, with Parliament taking the lead. We have heard a lot about the ban on books in recent weeks. But this is the one tangible link you can have with your family: …’I thought you might enjoy this – I did’ or ‘a few crosswords to keep you busy’. This prohibition isn’t only about reducing opportunities for learning. It also removes the last possibility of a gift, a tangible piece of human warmth.’

Andy Keen-Downs began:
‘Pact is an independent national charity for people affected by imprisonment. This includes people going into prison, working inside prisons, working ‘through the gate’ and after release.  We work with and support people who have offended, their children, partners, and family members throughout the whole journey. We support people to make a fresh start and to minimise harm. Our main focus is on strengthening people’s relationships and sense of community.  We are realistic optimists – we believe it is never too late to make a fresh start and that change is possible for everyone.
We work to achieve eight strategic outcomes but, for the sake of brevity, I will quickly summarise the top three. The first is: stronger families & positive relationships - which results in a reduced risk of offending and inter-generational offending. The second is: safeguarding children and adults in the criminal justice system; and the third strategic outcome is: to ensure that commissioners and policy makers are well-informed.  We are not a campaigning organization but we do offer ourselves as a ‘critical friend’.

By this summer, we expect to be delivering services in about 50 prisons, of all types.  
Our prison visits services supported 76,000 prison visits last year. We supported over 7,000 prisoners with intensive one-to-one support. And we provided longer term parenting and relationship education to over 700 parents, couples and young people in custody. As well as working with prisons, we work with a number of local authorities, and in partnership with probation staff in several regions.  Increasingly, our work is about joining up that provision.
Like Deborah & Gillian, I believe our starting point is to treat prisoners as partners in rehabilitation.  The evaluation of our ‘Building Stronger Families’ course, which we deliver inside prisons with prisoners and their partners, showed that those who attended the course had a 10% lower re-conviction rate than a matched pair group.  There is huge untapped potential in families to transform rehabilitation.

Prisoners’ families come from all walks of life and it is important to avoid crude stereotyping which can be stigmatizing and harmful. However, there are needs and risks.  As a group, prisoners’ families include many individuals who struggle with multiple and complex needs. Sometimes these needs are alleviated when a family member is taken away into prison. It can be a relief, or at least, a mixed blessing for some families. For the majority of families however, the experience of imprisonment of a family member is itself a traumatic and harmful event, and the damage caused for children and others by this form of separation on the family unit can be severe.

There is so much that we can and do say on this topic.  I have chosen to focus on one particular group, where I believe parliamentarians have a real opportunity to make a difference - and that group is prisoners’ children.

At this point the division bell went and peers left the meeting.

So – what do we know about prisoners’ children? About 100,000 children will go to bed tonight with a parent in prison.  Over the next 12 months, a total of around 200,000 children will experience parental imprisonment. Many more will experience the imprisonment of a sibling or other relative.

Children are naturally resilient, and many children of prisoners go on to be perfectly fine. However, it isn’t labelling them to state the research evidence which is that prisoners’ children do experience a greater total number of risk factors than other children.

They are more likely to live with caregivers who abuse drugs, or have mental health problems.  They are more likely to live in households with incomes below poverty level.
They are more likely to experience sexual abuse or physical abuse; and are subject to multiple changes in residences and caregivers.

In the case of children whose mothers are imprisoned, we know that for 85% of mothers involved, prison was the first time they had been separated from their children for any significant length of time.  Only 5% of prisoners’ children, who previously lived with their mothers, remain in their own home following their mothers’ incarceration. Many will end up in care, or be cared for by family or friends who also experience extreme hardship.

What are the societal benefits of targeting services to support prisoners’ families? The first is that it reduces reoffending. Prisoners who have regular contact with family members are 39% less likely to reoffend than those whose family relationships have broken down. It reduces the risk of self-harm and suicide; separation from a child or a partner, due to custody, is a significant predictor of self-harm or suicide risk, particularly for women entering prison. It reduces risk of harm to children; at one end of the spectrum, we find ourselves referring cases of children who come to our attention who are suffering abuse or neglect. The bulk of our work however is to support parents and carers, in prison and outside, to minimize and mitigate the risk factors I have just spoken about.

Longer term, we know it can prevent future offending. Studies also show that boys whose father has been in prison are significantly more likely to commit certain types of offence and go to prison. One study suggested that as many as 60% of boys with a father in custody are likely to go on to offend in later life. Building positive parenting, and stronger family relationships, should therefore be seen as a critical long term policy goal to reduce crime, for any government.
The good news is that the Ministry of Justice and NOMS have in recent years worked hard on this agenda and deserve credit for what they have done and are doing. In fact, they are taking their responsibility to prisoners’ children and families more seriously than any other government department, for whom this group often appears to be largely invisible. There are now minimum specifications for prison visitors’ centres and visits services and we have seen the beginning of commissioning of these and of prison-based casework support. Pact has also recently supported NOMS staff training by creating an online learning set for prison-based staff on safeguarding children.  

In spite of shrinking budgets, family engagement workers are now being commissioned to work in a number of prisons, including YOIs and women’s prisons. Pact has drawn together an alliance of charities which we have called the ‘Prison Family Support Alliance’ to deliver these services. This involves POPS in the North West, NEPACS in the North East, and Jigsaw in Yorkshire.  The model of service has been independently evaluated and shows a return on investment of £11 for every £1 of public money invested.  We believe this service should be an expectation for all prisons, and seen as just as essential to the decent management of prisoners as healthcare or chaplaincy.

Some of the various potential ‘primes’, the companies coming into the Transforming Rehabilitation marketplace, appear to have some awareness of the critical importance of family and relationships.  And generally, the rhetoric about ‘what works’ seems to be finally moving away from an obsession with a ‘cognitive behavioural’ model to basing commissioning decisions on the wide body of academic knowledge about how and why people desist from crime, and social and family relationships, as we have already heard, are at the very centre of this thinking.
So, what is not so good? Anyone who works in prisons will tell you that it is becoming ever more challenging to deliver any services in prisons. We are not alone, as family organisations, with that problem. The level of staffing in many prisons means that it is becoming practically more challenging to deliver services of any kind. Some prisons are experiencing very high levels of sickness absence amongst their staff, on top of the recent restructuring to get down the costs.
There is a lack of any clear funding for prison or community-based relationship and parenting courses or structured programmes targeting offenders and their families.  Prison education commissioning is in our view too narrow.  Educating prisoners in how to be good-enough parents, or how to live with their families, is often as crucial to their employability prospects as literacy and numeracy.

Also, too many local authorities still don’t include families affected by imprisonment as a trigger for an offer of support by Troubled Families teams in the community.  Despite the obvious fact that if we fail to keep families together, people are less motivated to change and don’t have a home to return to when they are released, we are seeing a lack of public commissioning for this work. So there are serious issues of concern as well as some good news in terms of the landscape in which we are operating.

What I would most like to draw your attention to however is not what happens or doesn’t happen in prisons – but what does or doesn’t happen in the courts for prisoners’ families. It is of course at court, on the day that someone is remanded and or sentenced, that the label ‘prisoner’s family’ first becomes a reality. This is the point at which the magistracy or judiciary remove a family member from their family. This can include of course removing a parent from a child, or a carer from an adult who is cared for in the home.

Our proposal is that at this point in the process, after the decision, a check should be made on the immediate care and welfare needs of any child or dependent adult left behind. And some small effort should be made to ensure that they are at least safe for the next few days. I believe that it is in the clear public interest to ensure that parents and carers left behind should have sufficient information and support to enable them to care adequately for any children or dependents who were previously being cared for by the person taken into custody.

There is no such safety net as things stand. I want to be clear that this issue has not come about because of the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. This has come about over many years, due to previous re-organisations under successive administrations to the role of probation staff who used to be resourced to check on family welfare at the court stage.
We have sought to bring about change through voluntary guidance, with the support of the previous Senior Presiding Judge (LJ Goldring), and of the Magistrates’ Association.  A Bench Notice was issued with awareness posters. However, this hasn’t been heeded by the courts.
More recently, with the support of Lords Ramsbotham, Touhig and others, we proposed an amendment to the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill to bring about a requirement to check on the welfare of children and dependents.  We were subsequently invited to meet with Lord McNally which we did with Action for Prisoners Families, Barnardos and Caritas Social Action Network.  Lord McNally recognised the need for something to be done, but unfortunately, time ran out for us in terms of this particular Bill, and Lord McNally moved on to chair the Youth Justice Board, so we lost the opportunity.
Our appeal remains the same however – which is that a new statutory duty be created on the courts to ensure that a simple check be made following the decision to place someone in custody.  We simply want to ensure that there is adequate care and support in place for children or dependent/at-risk adults, that we are not placing them at risk of harm by removing a parent or carer, and that safe, short term care arrangements are in place: that’s the minimum. Our proposal therefore is that there should be an open question in court.  We have drafted wording for this.

I’m very grateful to Cassie, who has joined us today. I met Cassie via our friends at the Grandparents Plus charity, a wonderful organization with whom we work closely. Cassie has very bravely agreed to be with us today, and I have a few questions to start us off.

So Cassie thanks for coming.  Your sister’s case hit the headlines in a big way and you and the five children – your own and your sister’s children - were actually forced to flee your home: really traumatic and life-changing events.  Can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up caring for your sister’s children?

Cassie: ‘My sister had been involved with the local authority over the neglect of her children. The children were removed and initially placed with me while checks were carried out and assessments were done, with the view that my sister and her partner would pull their socks up and get the children back.  Unfortunately in a drunken fight one particular night my sister took a knife and stabbed and killed her partner. Up until that point we had assumed that the children would be with me as a temporary measure.  But after that it became clear we were looking at long-term plans for the children.  The options were: care, with the two nieces and a nephew being separated; and the youngest child, who was then seventeen months, being taken away from her siblings who adore her and placed for adoption. I wasn’t having it:  it was not going to happen.
Andy Keen-Downs: So, wind back to the court:  Was there anyone there who asked any questions about the welfare of the children? Were they mentioned? Was there anyone to give you help and advice?

Cassie: I don’t think anybody from the criminal court were even aware that they existed.  Nobody asked. Nobody checked whether they were OK. Nobody came to me and asked whether there was any support that we needed. The children particularly were dealing with an extremely traumatic experience and they could have done with more help than they got.

Andy Keen-Downs: I think you had a police liaison officer?

Cassie: Oh yes we did. She was …wonderful. Her attitude was that she was liaison officer for the family of the victim. As far as she was concerned, we were the family of the perpetrator, and she did not want to work with us at all.

Andy Keen-Downs: Was there any communication, or joined-up care, between the courts and social workers…..?

Cassie: No, none at all.

Andy Keen-Downs:  So you were in this desert, with these traumatised children, your own children, and your own life?

Cassie: Yes, it affected everybody really, not just my sister’s children.  It affected me, my children, my partner, my mother, my friends: it was such a traumatic experience it affected everybody.

Andy Keen-Downs: What was it like for you visiting prison with the children?

Cassie: My niece was taken, initially every three weeks then every six weeks, to visit her Mum in prison.  I know it has to be done, and I know security is a priority, but I found it quite horrific to watch this little girl having her nappy stripped off, having the inside of her mouth inspected. She didn’t realise what was happening, bless her, she was too young, but I was watching it, and I found it very hard.  

Andy Keen-Downs: They didn’t have any intelligence that you were likely to bring drugs in?

Cassie: No, none whatsoever.

Andy Keen-Downs: Last time we spoke, there were home visits, or at least visits into town happening.

Cassie: Yes. When the court case was finished, she was sectioned under section 41 of the Mental Health Act and placed in a secure psychiatric hospital. She is now currently, I understand, allowed certain unsupervised visits into the local town, which is approximately fifteen miles away from where we live. Because of the difficulties we had when she was transferred from prison to the hospital, the hospital created a relationship that put me and her in conflict with each other. She felt that I was grassing her up and making trouble when they came to me and asked for information about what she was like as a child, how she behaved, how we were parented. She has repeatedly said that she hates me, and she is in hospital with a diagnosed psychiatric condition that means she can’t control her impulses. She is fifteen miles, a bus ride, away from me. We can’t go into the local town. My niece and nephew are terrified that if they do, they will walk out of Boots and Mum will be walking past.  We are not allowed any information. We were not allowed to present our case for these visits, or her transfer to this particular hospital. All we get told is that it would be a ‘breach of confidentiality’.  It is very worrying, and there is nothing we can do. A social worker made a very crass joke, that as far as my sister’s release is concerned, the first we could know about it is when she turns up on my doorstep with a knife in her hand. And she is absolutely correct, unfortunately.’

Andy Keen-Downs: Cassie, thank you very much. We’ll sit down now.’