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The government estimates that around 200,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment each year in England and Wales, and that around 10,000 children a week visit the secure estate. 

In a report entitled ‘Locked Out’, Barnardo’s examines the experiences of those children and the wider impact visitation has. 

Speaking with children at community services, prison visitor centres and prison visit halls, those interviewed told Barnardo’s researchers about their experiences during prison visits, what worries them and what could make them feel more reassured. 

Interestingly, the children and parents interviewed wanted to see small changes rather than an overhaul in policy. At the heart of all responses was simply a need for the child to be able to gain more from the relationship with their parent in prison. 

Treating family visits as part of resettlement

The report found that for those prisons, for example the G4S-run HMP Parc prison in South Wales, where family visits are treated as part of the resettlement of offenders, the process is incredibly beneficial to the child as well as the offender. Put simply, a visit from the family is seen as a useful intervention rather than purely a security risk of privilege that can be sanctioned. This is something Barnardo’s has made clear, stating “as well as improving outcomes for offenders and benefitting the prison, it is more positive for children”. 

Incentives and Earned Privileges a barrier

The report also recommends that children’s visits to male prisons should not be included in the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, as they are for women’s prisons. It argues that family visit days should not be restricted to ‘enhanced’ prisoners emphasising that “children have a right to contact with their parents, including in circumstances where they are separated from a parent through imprisonment.”

Simplifying access to the Assisted Prison Visits scheme 

The Assisted Prison Visits scheme makes a financial contribution towards the cost of visits. Yet, the families interviewed said it is difficult to access and is very complex to apply for. However, with the build of new prisons further away from towns and cities, the need for assistance will intensify. In fact, Barnardo’s make the point that “Children with a parent in prison are at greater risk of child poverty than their peers. The financial burden of visiting should not be a barrier to children enjoying their right to contact with their parent.” 

Ultimately, what we are likely to see in the coming months is a direct response by the National Offender Management Service to make financial assistance more readily available. 

Consistency of recreational resources for children in prisons

Findings show that there’s an extremely wide variation in the facilities available whilst inside the prison. Some just have facilities for younger children and not teenagers, whilst others were found to be unsupervised and even locked. 

Similarly, different rules applied with regards to children bringing in their homework to share with their parent. Barnardo’s recommends that all prisons should allow for children to share their educational achievements and progress with their parent. The benefits, the charity says, are two-fold. There’s an opportunity for prisoners to see the link between their education and that of their child, as many have low levels of literacy and numeracy. It also motivates prisoners to improve their skills to help their child with their education. 

Appetite from prisons to understand more

The research showed a considerable willingness from the prison service to understand how family visits can develop what Barnardo’s calls ‘prosocial behaviour of prisoners’ and help reduce reoffending. 

It will be interesting then, when HMP Parc, which has been leading in this area, reports back to the Ministry of Justice’s data lab with five years’ of evidence related to those who have been released through the prison’s family interventions unit. We’ll certainly produce a follow-up blog on some of the key interventions and the impact of the prison’s Invisible Walls Programme.

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