Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Maintaining Family Ties: an Uphill Struggle

Amid all the media debate over the current state of our prisons – violence, overcrowding, rape and sexual assaults, staff shortages – a very informative report issued this month by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) appears to have passed under the radar almost unnoticed. This is unfortunate because it deals with an important issue that affects the vast majority of prisoners.

The PPO bulletin, entitled Maintaining Family Ties, reviews the important role played by families in reducing reoffending and helping released prisoners settle back into the community. It can be found here.

As Nigel Newcomen, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, observes in the preface: “Maintaining family ties can help to prevent prisoners reoffending and can assist them to settle successfully in the community on release. Maintaining family contact while in prison also reduces isolation and the pain of imprisonment for both prisoners and families.” 

The PPO: Nigel Newcomen
The PPO considers complaints from serving prisoners when all internal avenues of complaint have already been pursued, so in essence the bulletin reviews the substance of these formal referrals during the period 2009 to 2013 and what can be learned from the issues raised, as well as the way in which prison authorities have responded. It makes interesting reading for anyone concerned with penal policy, as well as for prisoners and their families.

One of the key observations is that prisoners, particularly those held in closed prisons, are often very limited in the forms of communication that they can use to remain in touch with their family members. Some of the points raised have already been covered in my previous blog posts, particularly in Prisoners: the Unnetworked where I explored some of the impacts of inmates being excluded from almost all modern communications technologies, including the Internet.

As the PPO bulletin notes: “Prisoners have limited means to keep in touch with their families: they can receive visits at the prison, send and receive letters by post (if they are sufficiently literate), make (but not receive) telephone calls, and, if eligible, attend close relatives’ funerals in the community through the temporary release scheme. In the main, however, they do not have legitimate access to the mobile telecommunications and information technology that so dominates personal communication in the community.”

Payphones: no pay, no phone
Of course, with many of our prison wings awash with illicit mobiles and SIM cards, cons who have access to these are able to communicate both with their families and friends, as well as criminal associates on the outside. As usual, those inmates who obey the prison rules are also those who tend to be the more disadvantaged. Moreover, cons who are unemployed, retired or who have no access to private cash from their families are severely limited in the amount of phone credit or stamps they will be able to purchase.

It has long been recognised that contact between serving prisoners and their families has the potential to reduce reoffending and can significantly improve outcomes in terms of successful resettlement on release. Even the Victorian prison regime recognised this and made provision for such visits. 

In fact, the PPO bulletin points this out: “Research has indicated that receiving visits during imprisonment increases the likelihood of a prisoner reporting that they had found employment and accommodation on their release from prison, which in turn contributed to lower rates of reconviction in the year after release.” 

Visits: face-to-face for 90 minutes
In other words, maintaining family ties is a positive penal policy that can be proven to benefit society at various levels, especially in the reduction in the number of victims of further crimes. All in all, it should be considered as a win-win situation for everyone concerned, including the taxpayer.

Recent budget cuts have seen some prisons discontinue what are called ‘lifer days’ when prisoners serving very long indeterminate sentences are allowed to spend a whole day with their close relatives, some of whom may have had very lengthy journeys. Whereas normal visits may only last for 90 minutes or two hours, lifer days offer opportunities for much more meaningful family contact. Sadly, this institution is now under serious threat from financial constraints, as are ‘family days’ when prisoners with young children can spend extended periods strengthening relationships with their partners and kids.

Area for family visits
Although not a lifer myself, I was privileged to have been able to participate in one of these ‘lifer days’ during a visit to another closed prison while I was working as an Insider. It was interesting to see just how important these special visits were to the prisoners and their family members, particularly their young kids who were able to run around and play games with their usually absent dads. 

Security was low key and I was impressed at just how relaxed and friendly the atmosphere really was. Even the governors and screws were jovial and pleasant. I think that at the end everyone left feeling better. I know I did. It’s sad to think that prison budget cuts are depriving completely innocent children of these valuable opportunities to bond with their own fathers.

Moreover, as some of the case studies included in the PPO bulletin highlight, there are various ways in which the Prison Service undermines its own stated objectives in supporting prisoners to maintain contact with their families: “Prison Service Instructions and guidance fully support the maintenance of prisoners’ positive contact with family and friends and set out how prisons should facilitate this. Nevertheless, the Ombudsman still sees examples where prisons fail to achieve an appropriate balance between supporting family ties and ensuring security and public protection. Practical failures include prisons not processing applications in a timely manner, not following the procedures, failing to apply them in a fair and consistent way or not providing a reason for limiting contact between a prisoner and their family.”

Turned away at the prison gate?
Some of the specific problems raised include the cancellation of family visits without any notice, often leaving family members oblivious of the fact that they will be travelling, in some cases very long distances, only to be turned away disappointed and angry at the prison gate. These incidents are usually attributed to security alerts or ‘operational’ issues (generally staff shortages) and I can confirm from personal experience that cancellations of visits in these circumstances can cause considerable distress for both cons and their families. 

Sometimes, a prisoner’s contacts with his or her family can be cancelled because of minor administrative errors. I well remember an incident at a D-cat (open prison) when an older married couple, who had been planning to spend time together when the husband had been granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) for the day, discovered at the gate that a clerk in the administration department had typed the wrong name on the actual paper licence (ROTL 7). 

The wife – who had travelled a considerable distance – was therefore unable to collect her husband from the prison gatehouse and I saw them standing looking across the security barrier at each other, both sobbing their hearts out. It was cruel and unnecessary. However, the system was absolutely inflexible and without a governor grade available to authorise an amendment to the licence, other members of staff could do nothing, even had they wished to do so.

Another potential area where serious problems can occur is ROTL on compassionate grounds where close family members are near death or for funerals. Recent changes introduced by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) are likely to reduce significantly the number of prisoners who are granted compassionate leave. Moreover, shortages of escort staff are also likely to result in prisoners held in closed establishments not being able to be with their families during such crises.  

A final chance to say goodbye
As the PPO points out: “Funerals are an important opportunity for the bereaved to pay their respects to the person who has died and to receive emotional support from relatives and friends. They are a significant part of the grieving process for anyone who has lost a close relative, and may be even more significant for prisoners who may not have been able to maintain regular contact before the death.”

Because of the unexpected nature of such emergencies – particularly following accidents or unforeseen illness – applications for ROTL on compassionate grounds can be made at very short notice. The PPO bulletin highlights that, on occasion, the prison authorities have been slow to process such requests or have failed to deal with the issue appropriately, sometimes causing great distress when inmates are left unable to attend funerals of their loved ones, thus compounding their grief.

An important issue that the PPO does not address in this report is the current practice of placing prisoners in establishments that are often located far away from their families, in some cases hundreds of miles away. This can severely limit opportunities for families to travel in order to visit, not least because of transport costs. Where prisoners’ families are in receipt of benefits they may be eligible for assistance through the government’s Assisted Prison Visits Scheme, however, the criteria used can exclude some families who are on moderate incomes, but not benefits. 

Prison: Visitor's Centre
Even when financial considerations aren’t a bar to organising a visit, travelling long distances with family members who are elderly, infirm, very young or disabled can prove a logistical nightmare. I know of prisoners serving long sentences who have been transferred to prisons many miles away from their family home and, in consequence, they haven’t had a visit for years.

The PPO bulletin concludes by highlighting “straightforward steps that prisons can take to reduce the number of complaints related to maintaining family ties, and to ensure that complaints are resolved quickly and effectively through the internal system when they do arise.” A nice sentiment from an organisation that means well. 

Imprisonment isn’t just a sentence served by the individual prisoner: it is also being served by his or her entire family. However, amid the present crisis in UK prisons – and with a political leadership that remains deeply in denial of these problems – I very much doubt we’ll see the maintenance of family ties by prisoners being considered as a priority area for positive action anytime soon, even though this is recognised as an evidenced-based means of reducing reoffending and supporting rehabilitation. You might almost conclude that Team Grayling is setting up cons and their families for failure. 


  1. Slightly off-topic, but you say "...many of our prison wings awash with illicit mobiles and SIM cards" How is this so? Have the prison authorities given up searching for such items because they just want a quiet life? Or are prisoners just very clever at concealing such items?


    1. Thanks for your question, Peter. The two reasons mobiles and SIMs are so easily available is because of a) bent screws and civilian staff who make big money from smuggling, and b) small easily concealed mobiles - especially the so-called BOSS-busters that pass through Body Orifice Scanner (BOSS) chairs in prisons without setting off the alert.

      These mini phones are actually advertised as such on eBay and would you believe? Prices range from £40 to £200 outside and sell for up to £500 or £600 inside closed prisons, so there is a handsome margin of profit to be made. They are also designed specifically to be - how shall I put this delicately - comfortably insertable, if you understand my meaning.

      Many experienced cons who know they are facing a stretch will 'pack' a mini mobile phone, perhaps a couple of pre-pay SIMs - linked to a swipe card left back with their family or girlfriend so they can be topped up - as well as a nice package of drugs. This will set them up economically for a while once they hit the prison wings.

      I had a good mate inside a C-cat who talked me through the entire process, including the basic economics of the trade. He was on his 14th or 15th short sentence for petty drug dealing and was an expert on the fine art of smuggling stuff into the nick.

      He would arrive with his little phone plugged and then sell it on quickly to heavy duty cons who ran the drugs trade, along with some of his own 'product'. This would provide him with some credit to make himself comfortable inside for a few months. When he needed to use a mobile himself, he would 'rent' an unlocked handset from another con and just put in his own mini SIM. It is obviously much easier to conceal a tiny SIM than it is a handset, so many cons keep one hidden away. For every mobile handset, there are probably 10 or 15 SIMs on each wing.

      There are electronic detection devices in many nicks, but the key challenge is to actually catch a prisoner in the act with the evidence in his possession. That's not so easy, especially after bang-up in the evening.

      You can hear the screws coming along the landing (jangling key chains), and you know the times of roll-checks and cell-checks, so unless you are a complete numpty (or post selfies on Facebook), the chances of getting caught are low enough to make the use of mobiles a risk worth taking for many cons. I always kept clear myself, but I know that many of my prison mates were regular mobile users.

    2. Cons should be allowed to own quid phones and take incoming calls only.

    3. Thanks for your comment. Some private sector prisons do allow cons to have pay phones in each cell so they can phone family and friends whenever they want to. This saves all sorts of problems. In public sector prisons when there are long queues on the wings to use a few pay phones there can be bullying and even fights.

      In D-cats (open prisons) cons who are eligible for Release on Temporary LIcence (ROTL) are actually encouraged to buy cheap mobiles from the prison and these are kept in a locker-room outside the gatehouse. They can pick them up when they go out on licence and top them up in town or on home leave.

    4. I have tried googling permutations of words designed to find a mobile phone suitable for insertion into my nether-regions, but have failed miserably. How would you search for such an item? Can you provide a link to an example?

      "You can hear the screws coming along the landing (jangling key chains), and you know the times of roll-checks and cell-checks, so unless you are a complete numpty (or post selfies on Facebook), the chances of getting caught are low enough to make the use of mobiles a risk worth taking for many cons."

      So, if the screws did not wear their jangly keys and changed the times of their rounds, prisoners would have a problem. The screws would confiscate enormous amounts of contraband, and the prison service would look stunningly effective. But why is this not so?


    5. Thanks for your questions, Peter. If you cut and paste the following into eBay you will see what type of mobile comes up: X5 Worlds smallest mobile phone Tiny slim Unlocked Bluetooth Headset Black. Others are advertised on eBay specifically as "BOSS-beaters". Prices range from around £40 upwards.

      It has always amazed me that screws all have these jangling metal key chains on their belts. It's like "belling the cat" to give the birds a chance!

      You can hear them coming in good time to stop whether covert activity is going on, even through a solid metal cell door. I gather that in the old days, screws on night duty (the 'night clocky') used to wear felt over shoes to muffle their footsteps, but this practice seems to have disappeared in modern nicks.

      Of course, at night cons just use illicit mobiles under the covers, so even if a screw does look in through the observation flap, if the lights are already out there's not much chance anyone will get caught. During association, cons post lookouts on the landings with a pre-arranged signal to let mobile phone users inside cells know if a wing screw is on the prowl. It's a sort of big game which everyone, cons and screws alike, play all the time.

  2. Can u do a post on drugs in prison. And a post on keeping busy. Plz vas

    1. Thanks for the requests. I've actually done a few posts on drugs: Mamba: a Nasty Name for a Nasty Thing and The War on Drugs and its impact in Prisons (both back in July). In my comment above on this article I explain a bit about how drugs are sometimes smuggled into prison. Have a look at those and if you have more specific questions I'll try to answer them.

      I'll post something on keeping busy shortly.

  3. NOMS appreciate the benefit of inmates keeping in contact with their families. I whole heartedly agree that it's a massive benefit not only to the inmate but for their partners, children and parents etc who have been isolated from them - through no fault of their own.

    My major gripe was the cost of phone calls to my loved ones when I was inside. A 10 minute call to a mobile cost around £2, a pound to a landline. Not a massive amount of money in the real world but my wages were £9.50 a week inside. It was infuriating to know that somebody, somewhere was creaming off some massive profit and so preventing me from having contact with my family. The extortionate call charges really don't help with the issues raised above.

    However, the prison service can shoot itself in the foot. I was friends with a young father who was desperate to get news of his daughters health. He had no money to make calls, there was a system in place to get £2 free credit to make a 10 minute call - on this occasion he applied one day too late and so was denied his call home.

    In his desperation he faked a suicide attempt, was placed in a 'safe cell' (24 hour supervision by a dedicated one-on-one screw) for 2 days. He was eventually allowed his £2 phone credit at a cost to the taxpayer of around £800 in overtime payments for his supervision. Maybe one of the most expensive 10 minute taxpayer funded calls ever made.

    1. Have you heard any stories about cons meeting and then marrying their wives while in Prison? This could be ex prison staff, penpals etc

    2. Thanks for your question. I have known cases of marriage (and one civil partnership ceremony) while one partner is still in prison, but it's not that common. It costs money and requires a lot of applications and security clearances for the bride/bridegroom, plus a few family members. Any catering also needs to be paid for - and I gather the food is not great - so most non-lifers prefer to wait until they are out. Lifers may not have that option, so maybe more of them consider marriage while they are still banged up.

      I do know of some relationships between cons and penpals, or family or friends of other cons who they've met during visits. Obviously relationships between cons and prison staff (uniformed or civilian) are against the rules, but this does happen occasionally. Usually, they either wait until the con has been released and then keep it quiet, or the other partner resigns from the service. As the recent media story about the lesbian prison officer who was defrauded by her ex-con partner illustrates, it doesn't always work out!

    3. Thanks for your observations. The high cost of prison payphones has been a constant issue. Unfortunately, it is a monopoly and NOMS can change what it likes.

      As you know, the massive proportion of a con's weekly wage that can be eaten up by 20 minutes of calls a week means that unless you have plenty of private cash, you will be severely restricted on maintaining contact with family. This is particularly hard on cons with small kids or very ill family members. It also reveals the 'class' system is alive and well inside the nick. If a prisoner has plenty of private cash, then he enjoys a much better lifestyle, as well as being able to chat to his family and friends pretty much every day.

      On the other hand, if there is no work or education available, a con will have to survive on £2.50 a week (less 50p for the rented TV). If he comes from an impoverished background and has no private money then he and his family will suffer disproportionately. If he is also illiterate (as a significant percentage of prisoners are) then he is effectively cut off from his family unless he can persuade a mate to write a weekly letter for him.

      It's hardly surprising relationships often break down while one partner is in the nick. So much for NOMS' commitment to 'maintaining family ties'. If you are poor and there is no work in the jail... bad luck!

  4. There are sometimes deliberate obstacles in place to stop cons communicating with friends and family. It used to be possible to correspond with a prisoner and send him a stamped addressed envelope for the reply. In some prisons this is no longer allowed and the SAE is not passed to the con but stored with his property. I don't know how widespread this is, but it seems ridiculously vindictive and counter-productive.

    Thank you for explaining about the phones, that had been puzzling me too. What is the penalty for being found with a mobile? Isn't it an offence to possess a phone or sim card, regardless of whether you are caught using it?

    1. Thanks for your comments and question. Unfortunately, the SAE fell foul of Chris Grayling's revised Incentives & Earned Privileges (IEP) rules back in November 2013. Before that you could receive a reasonable number of SAEs and even whole booklets of stamps. Now that's all been banned. Of course, it's true that some cons used the stamps as prison currency, but it has really made keeping in touch with family and friends much more difficult and expensive for cons who may be jobless in the nick and only get £2.50 a week.

      The penalties for being caught with a mobile phone inside a jail have been made more severe. Under the Offender Management Act (2007) mobile phones are a so-called B-list item of contraband and the penalties are up to two years in prison and/or a fine. The problem is actually catching the con in possession and that's not very easy, particularly with the size of mini SIMs and the current shortage of wing staff.

  5. A communication block is unfair. I guess the Charles Salvador fan club is a media myth.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Usually there isn't a restriction on letters and simple greetings cards being sent in, although if a con gets sackfuls, then the issue of 'volumetric control' comes into play (limits on the amount of personal property permitted in possession). However, sending out letters is dependant on the prisoner being able to afford stamps, envelopes and writing paper.

      All prisons are supposed to provide what is called a 'weekly letter' free of charge and this goes out 2nd class post. I've been in nicks where you get extra - maybe two a week - if you are Enhanced status in the Incentives & Earned Privileges (IEP) system. Obviously there is a degree of random checks on letters by security (outgoing and incoming), plus anyone in for terrorism, sexual offences or harassment will be subject to much tighter controls on correspondence. I suspect that Charlie S (aka B) does get all sort of mail from 'fans'. They Kray twins certainly did!

  6. Your blog mentioned something about Dads reading a children's book and saving it onto a cd for their kids, who pays for that? Is it the con or the prison?

    1. Thanks for your question. This scheme is called Storybook Dads and is a registered UK charity that facilitates this process with the support of the prison authorities. The actual production of the CD or DVD is free, although I gather some prisons do charge the prisoner for the price of the postage. You can find more information on the charity's website:

  7. Thanks for this interesting and helpful blog. It is so rare to hear someone speak up about what families of prisoners go through. Emotionally it is devastating and financially difficult too. I'm not surprised you have so many readers. It says so much about my experience of the criminal justice system that the fact you are so polite to your readers and responders moved me most of all.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad that you are finding the blog interesting. You are quite right about the devastating impact on prisoners' families. Often they are left facing financial catastrophe, homelessness, poverty and depression.

      Children particularly can suffer disproportionately, even being bullied at school or in the neighbourhood because they have a parent (or even older sibling) inside. The impact of raids on private homes by police (sometimes armed) when making arrests can leave children severely traumatised and can set off a range of distressed behaviours, including bed-wetting and refusal to go to school.

      I even know of several cases where social services have pushed mothers into taking their kids to bereavement counsellors to help them cope with their loss - as if their fathers had died. Personally, I have mixed feelings about that myself, but I can see the logic in it.

  8. If social services are recommending prisoners' children see bereavement counsellors then this highlights a huge gap in the care system and general neglect of prisoners' families. As strong family links are proven to play a big part in rehabilitation, and reduced chances of prisoners reoffending, then not only is this failing those children but wasting the valuable resource that families can be. Being treated with suspicion and contempt, by the authorities, must have a devastating effect on those children's futures. I don't have young children yself but feel for them, and their mothers.

    1. Thank you for your comments. Sadly, at the present time I believe that rehabilitation in prisons is way down the agenda. When I was a prisoner, until earlier this year, I cannot honestly say that I encountered much evidence of concrete rehabilitation work going on, particularly with inmates serving short sentences who were routinely ignored by Offender Management Units.

      Whether this will change in the near future under the controversial Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda, I can't say, but at the moment rehabilitation - including maintaining family ties - bumps along close to the very bottom of the priorities in our overcrowded and understaffed prisons. Obviously, this has a negative knock-on effect for families and children of prisoners. I would certainly agree with your observation that this is to waste a very valuable resource when it comes to reducing reoffending through strengthening positive family relationships.

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