Lord Farmer is a former Treasurer of the Conservative Party.
This Wednesday, over 50 Conservative parliamentarians, almost a quarter of our Commons backbench, launched a manifesto of policies to prevent relationship breakdown and strengthen families. Every day this week, one of the signatories to that manifesto has authored a piece in ConservativeHome which highlights a priority area in family policy.
Fiona Bruce MP and I led on the development of this manifesto and she opened the week with a rationale for the agenda and why we need a network of family hubs across the country. Maria Caulfield described the well-evidenced link between parental conflict, family breakdown and mental ill-health in children and young people; Andrew Selous scoped out what the new relationship curriculum must contain if we are to build a culture that supports stronger relationships and Derek Thomas highlighted the problem of father absence, especially in our poorest communities, and how we can bolster father involvement.
I am concluding this mini-series with recommendations for our prison system which harness the well-evidenced link between prisoners with good family and other relationships leading more settled and productive lives while inside. Men who have family visits are 39 per cent less likely to reoffend when they leave.
Sadly, we are getting used to a steady diet of dismal headlines about the state of our prison system. Reading about the violence, drugs, overcrowding and poor morale among prison officers could create the impression that our jails are bedevilled by a toxic and dangerous culture which the Government has little power to change.
However, last month the Ministry of Justice published the final report from the Farmer Review which they commissioned from me. It focuses on the importance of prisoners’ family ties and other relationships to safety and rehabilitation, the measures from which should, once implemented, start to break up some of the negativity and hopelessness that seem to characterise our jails. They will also reduce the staggeringly high rates of intergenerational crime: one study found almost two thirds of prisoners’ sons went on to offend themselves.
As I said in the Review’s Foreword,
“This report is not sentimental about prisoners’ families, as if they can, simply by their presence, alchemise a disposition to commit crime into one that is law abiding. However, I do want to hammer home a very simple principle of reform that needs to be a golden thread running through the prison system and the agencies that surround it. That principle is that relationships are fundamentally important if people are to change.”
In many ways, I rediscovered what Lord Woolf found when he ran the public inquiry that followed the appalling and brutal riots in HMP Strangeways and other prisons in 1990.
One of his 12 major recommendations was that there should be: ‘better prospects for prisoners to maintain their links with families and the community through more visits and home leaves and through being located in community prisons as near to their homes as possible.’
Over a quarter of a century later, I found that, while some progress has been made, Woolf’s emphasis on the importance of prisoners’ families to safety and rehabilitation is still far from consistent across the prison estate. Cultural change to embed this needs a shift in the mind-set of many governors, senior staff and prison officers. The main findings and recommendations of the Farmer Review can be summed up under these headings of consistency, safety and culture.
Governors can address the unacceptable inconsistency of respect for family ties across the prison estate by learning from other prisons that engage well with families, common principles I drew together as a ‘local family offer’ that governors now hold the budgets for delivering. Broadly each prison needs:
(a) A visitor base or centre and visiting services;
(b) A staffing structure that makes family work an operational priority;
(c) Extended visits, where families can spend longer with each other and in less formal surroundings;
(d) Family learning, so prisoners learn relational skills and how to be a better parent and partner inside – and eventually outside – prison; and
(e) A ‘Gateway’ communication system – if families have concerns about someone in prison, being able to communicate those to the right member of staff saves lives.
This leads onto the importance of families to prisoner safety, the top priority for the Government as rehabilitation cannot happen unless prison regimes are calm and stable. Where men are encouraged and helped to stay in touch with their children and have a sense of responsibility towards them, there is a big incentive to stay out of trouble and drug-free. I saw fathers supporting each other to keep their noses clean: as one man said, “if I am talking to my son at 6pm and finding out how he’s doing, I don’t want to be off my head on drugs”.
Prisoners who don’t have contact with their families are far more likely to be violent, self-harming, suicidal, and have poor mental health. They need relationships to motivate them and give them hope.
The promised additional 2500 prison officers will give those on the wings more time to relate to the men in their care. Officers told me they are so busy that they feel de-skilled: they are losing the ability to develop a rapport with the men on their wing and, in so doing, obtain vital insights into what is going on in their lives.
Finally, the importance of a culture that values families: prison staff need to manage visits with the attitude that family members – and other visitors with whom prisoners have good relationships – are important not just to those they are visiting but also to what prisons are trying to achieve. Offenders’ families have been described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons as the most effective resettlement agency, yet they are sometimes treated as an inconvenience at best, criminals themselves at worst. Visits regimes can be infused with a customer service mentality that does not compromise safety
We could also send a very strong signal about the importance of family ties by ensuring men are kept within their home region and, when moved out for tactical management purposes, brought back as soon as possible. This is not being soft on prisoners but about making them aware of their ongoing family relationships, not letting them off the hook while they are inside – and bringing home to them their vital role in preventing their children from becoming offenders.
It also eases life for families who have done nothing wrong. On the Isle of Wight, I met a woman with three young children whose husband had been relocated from the local prison, where she could see him every week, to a Midlands prison. Visits now require an overnight stay en route, they’re much harder, more expensive and therefore far rarer.
To summarise, the broad cultural change my report is calling for is essential for improving safety, the overriding concern of everyone I met in prisons, whether staff or prisoners. All live under an existential threat when regimes are unsettled to a dangerous extent. Better contact with families cannot wait until the dust has settled: it is part of the solution. Good family work is also indispensable for sticking a crowbar into the conveyor belt of intergenerational crime.