International Day of Families: the importance of family for children in custody

On International Day of Families, Angus Jones, Team Leader for Children and Young People, reflects on the vital importance of families for children in custody.

Since my first day working as a family support worker at HMP Brixton 18 years ago, I have been struck by how important families are in supporting prisoners, maintaining their well-being and helping them live successful, crime-free lives on release.

It important to remember in any discussion about family ties that, for a minority of prisoners, family contact is not appropriate – their family may be the victims of their crime, or in the case of children in custody they may have restricted access to  family because they are in the care system. However, our 2014 thematic inspection into resettlement provision found that, for the majority, a prisoner’s family is the most effective resettlement agency, providing more accommodation and employment opportunities than any professional support service. These findings should not be a surprise, I remember relying heavily on my own family for support applying for my first job or during my own health concerns, why should prisoners be any different?

Of all groups of prisoners, it is children who need the most support to maintain these key relationships. But, rather than enable children to keep in touch with their families, the current system creates unnecessary barriers.

The small number of establishments that hold children means that 40% are held more than 50 miles from home including 15% that are more than 100 miles. This means their families, who are often low income or have other children to look after, find it difficult to visit. Our 2016 inspection into the impact of the distance from home on children in custody found that every 25 miles further that a child was held from home was associated with one less visit from a family member or friend. Regular phone calls are meant to mitigate this, but the cost is incredibly high for those living in young offender institutions (YOIs) (around £1.40 for a 20 minute conversation) substantially limiting many children’s ability to call their family.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic these longstanding issues have got worse. The number of visits slots has been reduced in many YOIs. At most sites it is now impossible for a child on remand to receive their full entitlement of three visits a week. Access to weekend or evening visits has also reduced making it much harder for families who might be working or caring for other family members to visit. In this context it is not surprising that in our surveys of children carried out before each inspection just 12% of children in YOIs reported receiving a visit once a week or more.

The one positive development during the pandemic was the introduction of secure video calls for children. This valuable resource has been shown to be popular when children are supported to access them. At Wetherby we found 430 video calls took place each month, however at other establishments the opportunity created by this new resource has been squandered and very few video calls take place.

There is a coherent argument that the failure to enable children to maintain their family relationships is concerning because of the implications for future reoffending. More important for me though is that for many children I meet in prison, their family is all they have, and it should be much easier for them to stay in touch.