A summary of evidence relating to the experience of visiting someone in prison and how services may improve the experience for visitors.
What’s it like to visit someone in prison? How can we make it a more positive experience?
Men and women in prison who get regular visits have lower rates of reoffending. But for the visitor, visiting someone in prison is often a difficult experience. The way they are treated as they wait, are searched and have their movement, clothing, and physical contact restricted can make them feel like they themselves are also a prisoner. This experience is called ‘secondary prisonisation’.
The way visits are staffed and organised, and the physical surroundings of a visit can make a difference to the experience for friends and family. The better the visit is the more likely the visitors are to make future visits. This will benefit both the person in prison and the family on the outside.
How does it feel to visit a prison?
Many people’s first contact with the justice system is visiting someone in prison. Visitors can feel angry and resent the system keeping their loved one from them. Because they are searched and subject to rules during visits they can feel judged, mistrusted, and perceived as a criminal themselves.
‘Secondary Prisonisation’ describes treatment of visitors as ‘quasi-inmates’. They are subject to rules, security procedures, and restrictions on their freedom like prisoners. This is enforced by prison officers. Visitors experience the burden and ‘pains of imprisonment’. Visitors have limited control over their time, environment, and autonomy. They can feel ‘tarred with the same brush’ by their relationship with the prisoner.
Visiting can bring joy at being re-united. But travelling, prison rules, and practical difficulties can cause stress and anxiety. Visits can be positive or distressing, depending on the relationship. There is a whole range of emotions. Fear, sadness, embarrassment, loss, anxiety, humiliation and frustration, sometimes for days afterwards.
Visiting doesn’t get easier over time. Practical knowledge improves over time, but not the emotional and psychological impact.
Families can feel like they are always waiting. Waiting for calls, their loved one to return home, and during visiting. Waiting and queuing is challenging and uncomfortable when there is no explanation for delay. Waiting is especially stressful with children. Sometimes staff don’t recognise that every second visitors spend with their loved one is important and visitors can feel dismissed or not valued. When visits begin late, or visitors are processed slowly this can be extremely frustrating and difficult for families. Visitors arrive very early for visits to get the best place in the queue to get maximum visit time. This adds to the overall burden of visiting.
Family members are searched depending on the type of prison or other reasons. Full searches can be very distressing. Children find dog searches particularly frightening.
Visits rooms make it hard to have personal or difficult conversations due to the noise, the presence of so many other people and the surveillance.
How do visitors feel about prison staff?
Prison staff are crucial in how families experience visits. Families see them as the public face of the prison service and embodying the authority that is punishing their loved one. Staff can experience hostility from visitors as personal although it may not be meant that way.
Research shows a link between how welcome and comfortable staff make visitors, and how often families visit. Staff can make a positive difference by demonstrating understanding and empathy, being caring, friendly, explaining their actions and the process (especially to new visitors), and making sure visits are not missed.
The importance of visitor centres
A good visitor centre can provide advice, support, shelter from the weather, and somewhere to rest after a long journey. Access to play areas, facilities like toilets or food can help reduce stress. Visitor centres can also promote the development of informal support groups.
How the visit environment helps or hinders family relationships
Visits rooms tend to be built for security and not for family relationships or intimacy. Visitors can be unclear why movement and contact is restricted when all parties have been searched. Some prisoners and visitors are afraid to hug their children or family members for fear of being seen as ‘security risks’. For intimate partners and children these restrictions can make visits awkward and traumatic.
Many visits rooms have play areas for children, but the imprisoned parent is not allowed to move from their seat. This means that children may spend their visit time in the play area away from their parent. This does not develop or maintain their relationship with their parent. It is difficult for the child to understand why their parent does not want to play with them.
Extended family or children’s visits are a better option for children because they are allowed to behave more normally. Parents can interact with their children as they would outside of prison. Family visits balance safety and security with encouraging, maintaining and developing family relationships. The different rules around behaviour, for example, no touching can be confusing when small children then return to general visit rules.
Some people find visits a difficult place to have meaningful conversations. This can be due to: room layout, sheer number of people, volume of noise, proximity to other people, and level of surveillance.
What can prisons do to make visiting a more positive experience?
Family centred visits can provide the most generous visit possible whilst ensuring public safety. These visits can provide the most benefit to prisoners, families/visitors and society.
There are many things which prisons should consider implementing to create a positive visitor experience:
- improved access to information for visitors about the process before visiting, including online
- a visitors centre
- a dedicated, consistent visits staff group
- support for staff to develop skills, and abilities, to build trusting and empathic relationships with visitors
- staff who understand the visitor’s perspective as those who: may have had long or difficult journeys, value every minute with their loved one, have had negative previous experiences or no previous experience of prisons are dealing with numerous emotions and are struggling with the ’weight’ of security procedures and the anxiety even for those with nothing to fear
- challenging cultures, behaviours or procedures that cause visiting families and children to feel judged, criminalised or with a negative view of the criminal justice system.
- where possible, increasing non-standard visits, like family days and homework clubs - these are important in allowing imprisoned individuals to be parents in a way they cannot in general visits.
- in general visits encouraging time together in a meaningful way with as much of a sense of normality as possible
- a supportive culture from prison managers
How good is the evidence about the visitor experience?
More evidence is needed. Most research is qualitative, and while there is an increasing amount of UK research, the majority is from the US.
Family learning in Prison The Learning & Work Institute study and resource.
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 (HMPPS).
Strengthening prisoners family ties policy framework HMPPS/MoJ 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
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’,
Rees, A., Staples, E., Maxwell, N. (2017) Evaluation of Visiting Mum Scheme: Final Report Cardiff: Cardiff University
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.