Samantha Callan is an Associate Director of the Centre for Social Justice and former adviser to David Cameron on family policy.

Prisons are not playing their part in rehabilitating offenders as they should – not my analysis, but the verdict of Michael Gove in an early speech he made as Justice Secretary in July. Given that reoffending costs £11 billion per annum, there are a lot of savings to be made, but he will need some big ideas to make the necessary inroads.

I want to propose one in this article, which builds on good work being delivered in some prisons, and takes it to a new level: namely, a family-based approach to rehabilitation across the prison estate that puts the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships at the heart of a fresh start.

Strengthening family ties can reduce the likelihood of reoffending by two-fifths, because families can be a stabilising influence and an important motivating factor in rehabilitation. This assertion rests on solid evidence. The Cambridge study of criminal behaviour conclusively shows that reoffending increased if there was a breakdown in family relationships and men were no longer living with their wives/partners (and presumably children). More positively, the longest life-course study of criminal behaviour ever conducted found that even highly prolific offenders can desist from crime after major turning points in their lives, particularly getting married or otherwise forming a stable intimate relationship.

All these personal turning points had in common the joining of social networks and institutions that meant cutting ties to offending peer groups. Getting into good accommodation quickly, and the reliable employment that can be heartbreakingly hard to secure with a criminal record are of paramount importance, but so too is the ability to break away from familiar friends and avoid getting sucked back into criminal behavior. This requires confidence and, in many cases, the acquisition of soft skills that were lacking before someone went inside.

The broader ‘relational’ benefits of a family-based approach are vital to emphasise, because not all prisoners have families to go back to: they may be estranged from parents, partners and children. Tragically, nearly a third of offenders experienced emotional, sexual or physical abuse when they were children, and over a quarter of the prison population has spent time in care. Father absence and parental neglect are particularly prevalent in prisoners’ histories: two-thirds of prisoners had a father in prison, and many of their mothers had addiction problems.

Furthermore, over half of the prison population have children under 18 when they entered prison – which implies a tie to a former or actual partner – and one in four male young offenders are already fathers. Given their backgrounds, many prisoners need help to break cycles of crime, family breakdown and associated harm but, at present, 40 per cent of prisoners lose contact with their families. The knock-on effects for the next generation are deeply concerning: every year, more children are affected by parental imprisonment than by divorce, and nearly a third of prisoners’ children will have significant mental health problems.

There are the beginnings of a family-based approach which this Government can build on, and which I will outline below. However, what is needed is an estate-wide strategy that ensures there is sufficient coverage of evidence-based services that can both help develop relational and family-strengthening skills in prisoners – and their partners on the outside – and prevent prisoners’ relationships breaking down. Also, if a family-based approach to rehabilitation is not strategically prioritised, funding for what works will always be precarious, and will make it very hard to plan provision and ensure it is coordinated, where possible, with services in the community.

First, in terms of great foundations already in place, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has commissioned Pact to provide Family Engagement Workers to work in women’s prisons, four young offender institutions (YOIs) and four male prisons. Family Engagement Workers are prison-based, but also work outside the prison estate. They specialize in working during the early days of custody to reduce the risks to prisoners and families that arise from separation, including self-harm in prisons, and child protection. They also involve Troubled Families teams and other agencies ‘on the outside’. Although governors greatly value these services, some of the contracts are due to run out soon and it is not clear if they will be recommissioned.

Early results are promising: in 2014-15, one-to-one casework support was provided to over 8000 individuals, with over three fifths saying relationships had improved with partners, more than 90 per cent reporting more positive family relationships and over 80 per cent saying relationships with their children had improved.

Second, NOMs has commissioned the online relationships experts One Plus One to develop an online parenting and relationship programme (with Family Action) to work alongside the prisoner online learning system.

Third, a number of relationship programmes have been developed for face-to-face delivery by trainers in prison. Some of these draw in families from the community or follow prisoners through the gate. Many of these courses, which tend to be commissioned by individual prisons from organisations such as Pact and Safe Ground, are based on sound theoretical foundations and routinely evaluated.

Pact’s Building Stronger Families, for example, is a short, intensive group-work programme to help couples build relationship skills and manage their money which has been delivered for over ten years to over 1,800 prisoners. Ministry of Justice data showed participants’ reoffending rates were, on average, 10 percentage points lower than a similar group of non-participants.

Prisoners’ partners also had greater confidence in the strength of their relationships – and so a stronger belief that they have a future together and the skills to face problems together. Confidence in this area can reduce depression in female partners, which is likely to have a knock-on effect on their children. Also, feedback from governors shows they see a benefit in terms of a substantial overall improvement in prisoners’ relationships, which makes life on the wings that bit more harmonious.

Other programmes such as Family Literacy in Prison are another vital form of family support which draw both parents into boosting their children’s literacy levels. Crucially, they send the very strong signal to dads in prison that they are uniquely important in the lives of their children and that future prison sentences will deprive them of the role they need to play.

Finally, emotionally satisfying prison visits are also important for subsequent resettlement: while some prisons have welcoming visitor centres and good support services to relieve what can be the very grim experience of visiting a close family member in prison, there is no consistency across the prison estate.

In summary, one vital piece of the rehabilitation jigsaw that should always be in place is support to build better, more stable family ties while prisoners are still on the prison estate and as they go through the gate. Obviously, there are serious resource implications for a hard-pressed Ministry Of Justice that is expected to deliver significant savings. However, when we look more widely at cross-departmental and local authority costs that accrue when children and partners suffer because of parental absence due to imprisonment, it becomes clear that everyone pays if we cannot become more successful at making prison an opportunity to strengthen families.

There is a pressing need to explore how to join up what can be provided on the prison estate with family-strengthening work on the outside, both in terms of budgets and activity: local Troubled Families programmes, efforts to boost educational improvement and the wider provision of family support through local Family Hubs. Given that children’s wellbeing hinges on them experiencing safe, stable and nurturing relationships, this support should not just focus on parenting but also include help for couples in their relationships – including how to raise their children well together when they are not living under the same roof.