When you go into prison, visits take on extra importance; it’s the only time that you get to see the people who matter most to you. Of course, you might not want to see them – it’s pretty difficult to when you’re at your most vulnerable, however big and loud you might come across to the other lads on the wing.
The number of visits you can get whilst in prison depends on how well you behave, through a scheme called IEP (incentives and earned privileges). You get less entitlement to visits if you are on a ‘basic’ regime than if you are on ‘standard’ and you get more when you are an ‘enhanced’ category prisoner. Managing behaviour in prisons is a key focus for prison staff, who work hard to keep everyone safe and encourage guys who find themselves in custody to improve their chances on release. There need to be rewards and punishments to help them to do this, just like there are in every other setting.
Crucially however, this also impacts on other areas of rehabilitation. In many – in fact, most – prisons, things like family days, Storybook Dads (recording a story to be given to your children) and parenting groups are seen as a luxury and are only available to those prisoners on ‘enhanced’ status. There are also many who say that men (and indeed, women) in custody do not deserve to spend time with their families, whether they are enhanced or not.
Taken back to its very basic level, it’s not the family’s fault that he’s in prison. The UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) states that every child has a right to family contact, where that is safe for them to do. It’s not dependent on how well those parents behave. Contact with your own children is not used as a reward in any other setting, so why should prison be different?
The other problem is that, for a guy on basic regime, he is getting less family contact at this time anyway. It may even have been a family issue that led to him kicking off and getting himself in this situation in the first place – maybe a letter from Social Services telling him that his children are going to be adopted. A failed attempt to see them one last time to say goodbye. A row with his partner, a close bereavement…all very common situations that lead to high emotions and a sense of helplessness, and for someone who isn’t great at dealing with strong emotions and disappointment, for someone who finds it difficult to contain and manage anger, it’s going to come out somewhere.
This doesn’t make it right to ‘kick off’, obviously. Those who would pose a risk to the safety of others need to see consequences, just like anyone else in society would. But it doesn’t need to be an automatic barrier to accessing the very support that may be exactly what you need at this time. Contact with family, a space to sort these problems out and clarify plans for the future can be helpful. Spending a day with your child reminds you that there’s more to think of than yourself and can actually help to improve behaviour, restore hope in the future and help to relabel someone in custody as ‘Dad’ when all they feel is ‘prisoner’. It’s a reminder that it’s not just you that’s having a hard time, your family are too. There will of course be times when this isn’t the most appropriate thing; no-one wants to put anyone else at risk. We do however need to take the time to understand individuals and assess needs on a human-to-human basis rather than adopt a ‘computer says no’ attitude.
In Wales, Pact are pushing for visits to be seen as an intervention, just like education or drug and alcohol support. We believe that all prisoners should be able to access family interventions as part of their rehabilitation and we see every day the difference that it makes to young Dads and their outlook. Each person needs to be reviewed on an individual level, and decisions made on a case-by-case basis. We need to recognise that sometimes it’s the people with the biggest problems that need this support the most, and benefit the greatest.