Guidance

Supporting relationships between prisoners and their families

A summary of evidence relating to the impact of imprisonment of families and how supporting relationships between prisoners and their families may support rehabilitation.

Prison rules require prisons to actively encourage prisoners to maintain outside contacts and meaningful family ties. Prisoners also have a statutory entitlement visits and to send and receive letters. Visits, letters and phone calls assist in sustaining supportive relationships with family and friends. Being able to communicate with those outside is part of providing a safe and decent environment for prisoners and contributes to a reduction in self-harm and suicide

Strong and supportive family and intimate relationships help desistance from crime. Prisoners who receive family visits are less likely to reoffend than those who don’t1. They are also more likely to have employment, training and accommodation on release.

What do we know?

  • Imprisonment can have a significant impact on the lives of family members - financial, emotional and health problems may increase when a family member is imprisoned.

  • Family networks are valued by prisoners - they can contribute to reducing reoffending, and assist resettling into communities.

  • Many prisoners have difficult family backgrounds. They are more likely to have grown up in care, poverty, or with a family member convicted of a criminal offence.

  • Between 200,0002 and 300,0003 children are estimated to be affected by parental imprisonment. There is evidence that prisoners’ children have poorer outcomes than their peers4.

  • An estimated 17,000 children are affected each year by maternal imprisonment5. The impact of a mother’s imprisonment on children is potentially greater6. Women prisoners are more likely to be the sole or primary carers, and to have experienced domestic violence. When a mother goes to prison only 9% are looked after by their other parent7. The serious harms children are at risk of during maternal imprisonment make supporting children’s visits with their imprisoned mothers a priority.

Strong and supportive family and intimate relationships can help desistance (desistance is how people with a previous pattern of offending abstain from crime):

  • By reducing the amount of time spent in groups of same-age, same-sex friends. This is a risk factor for young male offending.

  • Strong partnerships and relationships with children provide something to lose if there is a return to prison. So does living with non-offending parents on return to the family home.

  • By providing a sense of purpose, meaning and direction

  • Crime and imprisonment may be incompatible for those caring for children or elderly parents.

What does the evidence say?

Interventions to improve family relationships and parenting focus mostly on young offenders. There is good evidence that these can reduce reoffending. Most interventions with adults aim to support prisoner’s relationships with partners or children. There is, insufficient evidence about whether this type of intervention reduces adult reoffending.

There is some promising evidence tor approaches focusing on family/intimate relationships. These may contribute to reducing reoffending among adults. This evidence is mainly in relation to family visits and home leave for prisoners. For women, there are some interventions which are effective in reducing reoffending. These are family-based interventions focusing on family processes like ‘attachment’, ‘affection’ and ‘supervision’. Other effective interventions focus on anti-social associates and personal criminogenic needs.

Visiting someone in prison (Ministry of Justice) 2019

The National Information Centre on Children of Offenders has been established to provide an information service for all professionals who come into contact with the children and families of offenders. The Centre is delivered by Barnardo’s in partnership with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HM Prison & Probation Service).

Kincaid, S., Roberts, M. and Kane, E. (February 2019) Children of Prisoners: Fixing a Broken System (Crest Advisory) It estimates that around 300,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment and 17,000 children each year by maternal imprisonment.

Strengthening prisoners family ties policy framework HM Prison & Probation Service/Ministry of Justice (2019). Policy supports the maintenance and development of prisoners’ relationships with family, significant others and friends, by using a range of methods and interventions.

Beresford, S, Earle, J. (2018) What about me? London: Prison Reform Trust

Farmer, M. (2017) The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime London: Ministry of Justice.

Farmer, M. (2019) The Importance of Strengthening Female Offenders’ Family and other Relationships to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime London: Ministry of Justice

Minson, S. (2017) Briefing Paper: The Impact of Maternal Imprisonment upon a Child’s Wellbeing and Their Relationship with Their Mother: Findings from ‘Who Cares? Analysing the Place of Children in Maternal Sentencing Decisions in England and Wales’

Booth, N., (2018) Family Matters: A critical examination of family visits for imprisoned mothers and their children Prison Service Journal. Vol. 238.

Rees, A., Staples, E., Maxwell, N. (2017) Evaluation of Visiting Mum Scheme: Final Report Cardiff: Cardiff University (This scheme was run at HMP Eastwood Park, and provided evidence that women’s mental health improved, and there were fewer behaviour adjudications when women were having positive visits with their children)

Sharratt, K. & Cheung, R. (2014) Incentivising prisons visits: new research findings on the needs of children with imprisoned mothers and fathers Prison Service Journal 216 pp. 24-29

Evidence and Segmentation Companion Document to NOMS Commissioning Intentions Factors linked to reoffending and desistance National Offender Management Service (2014)

Transforming Rehabilitation: a summary of evidence on reducing reoffending Ministry of Justice (2014)

Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds (Ministry of Justice 2012). This examines the childhood and family background of prisoners. It looks at their current family relationships and the association with and reoffending. It estimates that around 200,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment

Further reading

The National Prisoners Families Helpline provides advice and information on all aspects from what happens on arrest, visiting a prison to preparing for release. It supports families in England and Wales and also has information about support organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Life in prison: Contact with families and friends A findings paper by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2016)

Evaluation of the Community Support for Offenders’ Families service (2015). Learning from a NOMS funded pilot of probation based family support services.

Learning from a National Offender Managament Service/Department of Business, Innovation & Skills management review (2014). This looks at better targeting of family case work and interventions.

Maintaining Family Ties PPO Learning Bulletin (Sep 2014). Family ties with prisoners.

Family Days in Prison, EuroPris summary (March 2016).

Limerick Prison Family Days (March 2016). EuroPris report.

Prison Reform Trust Research (2005). This considers the potentially greater impact of imprisonment, on children of women prisoners.

References

  1. May, C., Sharma, N. and Stewart, D. (2008) Factors linked to reoffending: a one-year follow-up of prisoners who took part in the Resettlement Surveys 2001, 2003 and 2004 Ministry of Justice Research Summary 5. London: Ministry of Justice.

  2. Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds (Ministry of Justice 2012).

  3. Kincaid, S., Roberts, M. and Kane, E. (February 2019) Children of Prisoners: Fixing a Broken System. Crest Advisory

  4. Murray, J., Farrington, D. (2008) Effects of Parental Imprisonment on Children. In Tonry, M. (Ed.), Crime and Justice: A review of research (vol 37.) (pp.133-206) Chicago, IL; University of Chicago Press van de Weijer.

  5. Kincaid, S., Roberts, M. and Kane, E. (February 2019) Children of Prisoners: Fixing a Broken System. Crest Advisory

  6. Minson, S. (2017) Briefing Paper: The Impact of Maternal Imprisonment upon a Child’s Wellbeing and Their Relationship with Their Mother: Findings from ‘Who Cares? Analysing the Place of Children in Maternal Sentencing Decisions in England and Wales’

  7. The Corston Report Home Office (2007)

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 12 August 2019