Prisoners’ family ties helping to reconsider the nature of our prisons

Posted On: 
10th August 2017

Lord Farmer's review is 'refreshingly complex and holistic', says Dr Anna Kotova from the University of Exeter.

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Today, a landmark report on prisoners’ family ties was published by the Ministry of Justice. In this report, Lord Farmer argues that the importance of family ties should be seen as being the ‘golden thread’ running through the prison system and all organisations working with prisons, prisoners and prisoners’ families.

It is well-known that imprisonment often has a dramatic and detrimental impact on the family outside. This includes financial, emotional and practical consequences for partners, children and other relatives of prisoners. For example, travelling to visits is often stressful, expensive and time-consuming.

However, Lord Farmer goes well beyond simply recounting the problems faced by these families. Critically, his focus is on what the government ought to do in order to minimise these problems and help prisoners and their families sustain close and positive ties. He proposes a detailed, complex and potentially ground-breaking policy framework that could not only improve the well-being of prisoners’ families but refocus and improve the prisons system more generally.

The report explicitly recognises the need for greater funding and staffing if good work is to be done with prisoners’ families. It recognises the need for greater staff training and better visiting facilities. It touches upon the potential of technological innovation, such as virtual visits. Moreover, it delves into the need to rethink the underlying purpose of prisons, by suggesting that family ties ought to be the ‘golden thread’ that runs through prison policy. The implication is that we need to move away from a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude to prisons and towards a more compassionate, rehabilitative stance.

Lord Farmer’s review is, in actuality, about much more than prisoners’ family ties. His view of the matter is refreshingly complex and holistic. For instance, his detailed discussion of the role of prison governors, and the suggestion that governors should be given the time and resources to engage in family-focused programs is important. It recognises that any positive prison reform requires time, money and dedicated leadership. In a time when our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, this healthy dose of realism is certainly welcome, even if Lord Famer does not stress quite how bad the current situation is. No significant reform program comes cheaply or easily, and Lord Famer is to be commended for recognising this explicitly.

As always, however, it remains to be seen what steps the government will take following the publication of the report. There is some excellent potential here for the government to use this report as a springboard for prison reform, but with Brexit looming large over current political debates, I wonder if there is enough political willpower to introduce the dramatic, complex changes Lord Farmer proposes. 

Dr Anna Kotova is a lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Exeter