Prisoners’ Week is a churches’ initiative that aims to celebrate and raise awareness of the work in Scotland to support prisoners and their families. This year, the theme has been Hope Within and throughout the week the National Prison Visitors Centre Steering Group has encouraged family members and friends who visit people in prison to share their hopes for their families, friends and communities.
When we think about reform of the justice system and rehabilitation we tend to focus on education, employability and housing. When considering how to make society safer and fairer, the impact of the justice system on prisoners’ families and the vital role they play in supporting their family members throughout their sentence and after release is often overlooked.
The most recent Prisoners Survey results suggests nine out of ten prisoners are in regular contact with friends and family outside prison and on any given night 10,000 children in Scotland have a parent in prison.
Prisoners’ families have been described as “the most effective resettlement agency”. Prisoners who maintain good contact with their family are six times less likely to re-offend. Over half of prisoners move in with family or friends on release and a further twenty per cent have their rent or mortgage covered by family members while they are in prison. Only around sixteen per cent have a job to go to on release – mostly with the help of previous employers, family or friends. Above all – prisoners’ families are important to them because they love them.
And prisoners are very important to their families. One family member responding to our Prisoners’ Week campaign wrote:
“Why do I write, visit and accept calls? Why do I hold it down and keep things in order at home? Because when you love someone unconditionally you are their backbone and their strength. Love knows no boundaries. Regardless of the situation, turning my back is not an option. This is how we roll…”
That unconditional love is perhaps most important of all for children. Research shows that the quality of our relationship with our parents during childhood has a life-long influence on how well we do in school, our health and our relationships with other people. That is every bit as true if a parent is in prison. Prisoners’ children are more likely than other children to experience disadvantage, mental health problems and to go on to offend. So it is hugely important that all prisoners and their families should have access to initiatives which allow imprisoned parents to play a positive and active role in their children’s lives – from Bookbug sessions and parenting programmes to homework clubs and Halloween parties. Just because someone is in prison, it does not and should not stop families from loving each other, supporting each other and planning their futures together.
Many Visitors Centres work with prisoners’ children to encourage them to express their hopes. I believe that small people should have big dreams so it made me smile to see some of these such as “I hope to play for Man City” and “I hope to be a politician”. One young person had written that they dreamed of doing a PhD in nuclear physics!
Others with more modest aspirations reveal the pain of separation. “We will be a family again” is a sad hope to see written in childish handwriting. “I hope Dad will be home for Christmas” is a common theme.
Others write “For people to realise the effect of bullying”, and “I hope that bullies just disappear”. For too many children, stigma and trauma are part and parcel of having a parent in prison - burdens no child should have to carry.
I hope that the voices of prisoners and their families will continue to be heard and they will be supported to achieve their aspirations as we all deserve to be. Because for all of us to thrive we all need something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.