In most, but not all, cases, maintaining positive family ties with a prisoner brings the best outcomes for all concerned, especially children.
Visiting a parent or other family member in prison can help to keep family bonds alive, but is often a difficult experience for all concerned, particularly the children.
It is up to the prisoner to say who he or she wants to visit them. There is little a family member can do if the prisoner is refusing to see their children or partner. He or she will need to have details of all the people they want to visit, as only people they have detailed on their list will be allowed inside the visits hall.
Every prisoner is allowed to have visits, but the regularity, length and quality of those visits depends on each prison and whether the prisoner is on remand or sentenced. Up-to-date and user-friendly information about prison visits is on the government website.
Another helpful website is www.firsttimeinprison.co.uk.
Prisoners are allowed a reception visit - usually from close family - soon after they first arrive. All visits have to be booked in advance. This can be done by telephoning the prison booking line or online at www.gov.uk/prison-visits.
Visits centres, like those run by Ormiston Families in the East of England, can play a very important role in making a long visiting day less stressful for families. Centres offer refreshments, play facilities, information and signposting to sources of help. A search online will provide visits centre information on all UK prisons.
Whilst remand prisoners are usually held at local prisons, after sentencing, prisoners can be transferred to prisons in remote rural locations. This can mean several hours of travelling for families with little public transport available.
As there are fewer women's prisons and YOIs (for men aged under 21), journeys to visit prisoner mums and siblings can be particularly complex. In addition, the costs incurred in visiting can be very high. Help in certain circumstances can be claimed from the Assisted Prison Visits Unit.
At the prison
Visitors need to take ID and should check beforehand which forms of ID are acceptable. Usually children under 16 do not need ID, but if the child looks older than 15, it is advisable to take some proof of age.
Visits generally take place in a prison visits hall, some of which, unfortunately, are not child-friendly spaces. They can be noisy, crowded, lacking privacy and with very few facilities for children.
Visitors need to be aware that prisoners may be moved with little notice, or may, at the last minute, refuse to see their visitors. In addition, restrictions vary from prison to prison and they should check the information online before their visit to avoid disappointment.
Many visits centres aim to make the visit as stress-free as possible. Information on visits centres can be found on our main website.
Support for family contact
Prisons may offer child-centred visits, often called 'children's visits' or 'family visits', in partnership with voluntary sector organisations such as Ormiston Families, PACT, POPS, NEPACS or Spurgeons. These are usually at special times, in a child-friendly play area or room and allow a lot more contact and interaction between the parent and the child.
These visits involve security checks as the nature of the offence may rule them out for some families. It may also be possible for children in care to be accompanied by a social worker or foster parent to attend a visit. Some prisons will arrange special visits for children who are about to be adopted, to have a chance to say goodbye to their parent inside.
Barriers to children visiting
Choosing not to tell children about the imprisonment of a parent can restrict the possibility of a visit. The greatest barrier to children visiting is that prisoners must initiate the visit and some parents simply don't want their children to see where they are:
My son knows where I am but doesn't visit. I don't want him to visit. Prison isn't part of his life and I want it to stay like that. Maybe in a couple of years when he is older.
Another barrier to children visiting a parent is when the parents are estranged. The partner outside may be unwilling to take children on a visit, and there may be no close relative able or available to take them. This is particularly hard for a teenager wishing to visit, as under 18s cannot visit without an accompanying adult.
Schools have to monitor the attendance and punctuality of all pupils and report these to the government. It may be that a parent is sent to a prison some distance away from where the child and family live making visiting the parent in prison difficult and necessitating time off school.
If this is the case it is advisable to inform the school of the absence in advance so that consideration may be given to classifying the absence as an 'authorised absence'.
You may also wish to discuss any absence from school with the Education Welfare Service to avoid the risk of incurring any fixed penalty fines for your child's absence from school.
Telephone calls and letters
Prisoners can make calls from prison but only to an approved list of contacts. The costs of these calls can be expensive which limits the number of calls someone can make. Prisoners cannot take incoming calls.
Sometimes a letter can be the best way for a child to communicate. They can send and receive something tangible that they can keep to remind them of the person they are missing. Letters and drawings can be sent in to prisoners, though all correspondence is checked by prison staff.
He comes out more in the letters than he does face-to-face. He seems to find it much easier to write it down.
(Partner of a prisoner)
Many prisons now have email and voicemail services which help maintain family contact and are particularly useful when urgent information needs to be given to the prisoner. Examples include www.emailaprisoner.com and www.prisonvoicemail.com.
Recorded story schemes
The charity Storybook Dads (also operating in women's prisons as Storybook Mums) provides a valuable service which enables prisoners country-wide to send a recorded story on CD or DVD to their child at home. Being able to hear their parent's voice can be very reassuring for children.