Could your family stay together if someone went to prison?

£369. This is what one lady in the Islands needs to come up with every time she wants to take her one-year old child to visit her daddy in prison. She must pay this money out of her very low income and wait several weeks to get the money back - not all the costs, but a good amount - from the UK Government’s Help with Prison Visits programme for people on benefits. Each visit takes them three days. Their child can't yet speak on the phone to Daddy and can't read or write letters. This means travelling to visit is their only option if the child is to know who Daddy is and that he loves her, even when he’s done something wrong.

At £369, they are lucky to manage a visit once every six months, paying in advance for travel, car hire, and accommodation. The family is desperate for ‘virtual visits’ (visits by video link), and their local social work team has agreed to facilitate this. Unfortunately, the prison has not agreed, and Scottish Prison Service Headquarters has upheld this decision. Ironically the UK Prison Services fund the Help with Prison Visits programme: how much would they save by facilitating video visits in such cases instead?

Early research from Families Outside identified the relationship between poverty, disability, and age with access to transportation.[1] At that time, a third of Scottish households did not have access to a car, yet many prisons were, and remain, virtually inaccessible without one. The report goes on to say that half of families travel from 5 – 12 hours or more for each visit to prison. Even if they could save up for the travel costs, could they afford the time off work, or the childcare when required, or the food or accommodation?

Under Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right to maintain contact with their parent in prison if this is in their best interest. But how do children in poverty exercise this right? People in prison who maintain positive contact with their family are up to six times less likely to offend after release – yet imprisonment fractures families. This is even more likely when a family is living in poverty, which is the case for the vast majority of people in prison.

With a Government committed to reducing inequalities, many opportunities exist to improve the situation for families in poverty when someone goes to prison[2]:

  • Local and national transport policies should commit to reducing inequalities through affordable and accessible public transport, especially for people in rural areas. This includes funded support for travel and transport to prison visits.
  • As noted in the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Transport (Scotland) Bill 2018, Community Planning Partnerships must focus on alleviating inequality. This includes inequalities families face as a result of imprisonment.
  • The use of digital technology should be expanded to support family contact in every prison, as recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2012)[3] and the Council of Europe (2018)[4]. This must be available in addition to face-to-face visits.

Good practice in relation to family contact in prisons exists, but it varies across the country, and the poorest families do not always have the opportunity to benefit from this.

Would your family stay together if you couldn’t afford to maintain contact?

[1] Higgenbotham, M. (2007) Do Not Pass Go: Travel Links to Scottish Prisons. Edinburgh: Families Outside.

[2] Cohen, M. (2019 forthcoming) Travel, Transport, and Visiting. Edinburgh: Families Outside.