Ellie Coburn and Sophie Pavitt
Prison visits can be of great importance, including in supporting rehabilitation and incentivising people in prison to maintain good behaviour. Visits can also support healthy relationships with family networks, which may improve prisoners’ chances of rehabilitation. Factors such as having a safe place to live on release and emotional and financial help to reintegrate back into society can be vital. A lack of familial ties and the right support can lead to reoffending and ultimately re-entering the criminal justice system. However, whilst it may be beneficial for people in prison to have a support network on release from prison, filling this role can put tremendous pressure on their families. After already being susceptible to stigmas placed upon them by society due to being related to a prisoner, families carry great responsibility financially to prisoners. Many families are forced into poverty and deprivation as a result of losing an income when a relative is incarcerated (Smith, Grimshaw, Romeo and Knapp, 2007). If the family has young children, it is likely that the remaining parent is left with the burden of full-time childcare whilst trying to support the household on a single income. For those in prison, loss of access to their children can have a devastating impact on their emotional and mental health (Charles, Muentner and Kjellstrand, 2019). The greater proportion of men in prison means women are most likely to carry the burden of support (Visher and Travis, 2011).
There are many issues related to financial deprivation and homelessness for women when their partner enters prison. Smith, et. al (2007) cite a case in which a woman was able to keep her home solely due to the support received from her extended family. Although prison is the legal punishment for the person who committed a crime, their families are often indirectly punished, causing them to sometimes feel like criminals, this is known as secondary prisonisation (Comfort et al, 2008). Family members may also experience barriers to visiting, such as financial hardship due to the cost of travel, food and overnight accommodation if they are far from home.
Visitors, as well as people in prison, have to adapt to carceral norms. Prison visits are often used as a privilege, with good behaviour earning prisoners extra visits and improved conditions. However, this can exacerbate feelings of secondary prisonisation (Comfort, 2008) as families are punished for their loved one’s behaviour if they are unable to visit. Family members can also feel punished for a crime that they have not committed due to the ways that they are perceived and treated while visiting (Aiello & McCorkel, 2018). Control is often exercised over family members as they are subject to searches upon arrival at the prison and scrutiny, as they must adhere to strict clothing and behaviour restrictions. In addition, children may encounter social stigma and isolation from both teachers and classmates, literature highlights how this can negatively affect children’s school performance and behaviour (Weaver & Nolan, 2015). When children are able to visit their parents in prison, they won’t be able to interact in the same ways that they would outside of prison. Although some visiting environments have been developed to be more suitable for children, prisoners are still treated as such, meaning that physical contact is minimal, and they are not always allowed to engage in closer play with their children.
It is evident that the families of incarcerated individuals receive few formal platforms of support and are often left to be the dependents of those in prison. There is a need for policy to take into consideration tailored support for families, determined by each individual situation. Further training is also needed for individuals in the community, such as teachers and employers, to understand that families of prisoners are vulnerable and require particular support. There has already been some development in the training of teachers by Families Outside who invite teachers into prisons to experience what their students are facing (Families Outside, 2015). This is essential to increase awareness of the consequences of incarceration on family members along with ways to support these individuals, which in turn could decrease the stigma surrounding prisonisation. Training for prison staff at all levels is also recommended, in order to better understand the ways in which family needs can be addressed with sensitivity and respect, to encourage a less hostile visitation environment (Action for Prisoner’s Families, CLINKS, Prison Advice & Care Trust, & Prison Reform Trust, 2007). Furthermore, it is important to continue investing in academic and policy research to improve the circumstances surrounding families associated with the criminal justice system. Currently, there are two projects in the University of Surrey’s Sociology department focused on families: the role of food in visiting rooms in women’s prisons and the role of families in youth offending services.
Food, families and visiting rooms in a women’s prison | University of Surrey
Developing family engagement models with front-line youth justice practitioners – Nuffield Foundation
Action for Prisoners’ Families, CLINKS, Prison Advice & Care Trust, & Prison Reform Trust (2007). The children & families of prisoners: Recommendations for government, p.3.
Aiello, B. and McCorkel, J., (2018). It will crush you like a bug; Maternal incarceration, secondary prisonization, and the children’s visitation. Punishment & Society, 20, (3), p.352.
Charles, P., Muentner, L. and Kjellstrand, J., 2019. Parenting and Incarceration: Perspectives on Father-Child Involvement during Reentry from Prison. Social Service Review, 93(2), pp.4-5.
Comfort, M. (2008). Doing time together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Families Outside, 2015. Good Practice Guidance for the Support of Families Affected by Imprisonment, pp.9.
Smith, R., Grimshaw, R., Romeo, R. and Knapp, M., 2007. Poverty and disadvantage among prisoners’ families. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Visher, C. and Travis, J., 2011. Life on the Outside. The Prison Journal, 91(3).
Weaver, B., and Nolan., D., (2015). Families of prisoners: A review of the evidence. Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice. Available: Families of Prisoners: A Review of the Evidence (cycj.org.uk)