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Putting families at the heart of the criminal justice system

‘The best family work I have seen in prisons has brought men face-to-face with their enduring responsibilities to the family left in the community, particularly their wives, partners and children, but also their parents, siblings and grandparents.’ – Lord Farmer


In 2017 The Ministry of Justice published a review (led by Lord Farmer, MP) entitled The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime, which advocated for the needs of families to be prioritised as ‘the golden thread’ running through the processes of all prisons. There are many research-based reasons for making so bold a statement but some of the most poignant are:

  • There is a strong correlation between a parent in prison and the chances that their child will offend later in life: two thirds (63%) of prisoners’ sons go on to offend.
  • When we sentence people to custody in the prison estate there is a 45% chance that they will lose contact with their relative while they are inside.
  • Meaningful family ties are vital for preventing prisoner reoffending (reoffending rates are 39% lower for a prisoner who receives visits from a partner or family member during their sentence than for a prisoner who does not receive such visits).
  • A reduction in only 10% in reoffending would lead to thousands of fewer victims of crime and would save the taxpayer £1.8bn.

The caveat to all of the above is that family relationships are supportive, which does not denote perfection but does exclude contexts whereby members may be the victims of criminal activity or strong influences provoking offending behaviour.

Lord Farmer’s report states that over the last forty years society as a whole has experienced unprecedented levels of family breakdown, particularly in its most disadvantaged communities. He argues that the repercussion of this is a society that appears to place little value on family relationships. This can make us less sensitive to the negative effects on prisoners’ children, other family members and prisoners themselves when prolonged separation is experienced and when relationships come under intense strain and may not even survive a prison sentence. All of which has been exacerbated by Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns, which, in many instances, saw prisoners locked in their cells for 23 hours a day to accommodate staff shortages and prevent virus spread in cell blocks.

Much has been done to change the culture of prisons through the implementation of Lord Farmer’s recommendations to enable family ties to be maintained and yet it is not enough. Five years on, a follow-up report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) states that urgent progress is needed before the impact of Farmer’s recommendations are felt in every prison landing, cell and visitor’s centre. The Golden Thread report talks about a ‘missing voice’ in the story; that the families of prisoners have a distinct but equally important set of needs that must be recognised but are all too often forgotten, leaving families (children in particular) traumatised and isolated from their communities.

Currently, there is also no nationally recorded or published data on the number of individuals who pass through the criminal justice system with dependent children, nor is there a statutory mechanism to identify these children and thereby refer them to support. These children exist in estimate—a vague figure. The CSJ calls this ‘a national scandal’. When we separate children from their parents, we must take responsibility for ensuring they are safeguarded and protected. In family courts, the interests of the child are paramount but there is an absence of provision in the criminal courts when children are separated from their parents. Each of these children will be at increased risk of suffering psychological, economic and social harms as a result of their parent’s imprisonment.

That question…why should prisoners spend time with their families?—Lord Farmer’s answer: because it reduces the risk of reoffending and intergenerational crime, and will save society billions. But there is more to it; children need to be loved by their parents. Family members are not simply assets essential for the purpose of reducing reoffence and saving society millions. What about the quality of life of the children affected by the actions of their parents and the system thrust upon them?

The Golden Thread report focuses on some key areas that impact the lives of prisoners’ children and families:

Arrest – The sight or sound of a parent, sibling or other close relative being arrested can be exceptionally distressing for a child who might not always understand what is happening or why. Then there is the jarring separation of children from their parents. It has been estimated that as many as 80,000 children experience a home raid by police each year. For these children, the abrupt departure of a family member can have significant consequences not only for their emotional well-being, but also their sense of stability and security. Research into the impact of maternal imprisonment highlights that mothers and children can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an arrest as they relive the painful moment of separation. For children, the arrest of a primary carer can be a source of anger and sadness which can put a significant strain on parent-child relationships.

Are the police gonna come and take me away, like they took my daddy away? – Child

Courts – It is difficult for families and defendants to ever be fully prepared for what will happen at trial and sentencing hearings. Trials can take unexpected turns, judges may pass sentences that are longer than anticipated, and sometimes lawyers simply get it wrong. This is often most devastating for parents with dependent children, who have not had time to say goodbye or make the necessary childcare provisions. In the criminal courts, children are so overlooked that the question of whether a woman has dependent children is not even included in routine data collection at sentencing or imprisonment.

We’ve had to find our own way through this. There’s been no one to say right, okay, this is what will happen next. This is the process. No one’s done that – we’ve just had to find out ourselves.Family Member

Custody – despite the evidence supporting the value of visits, significant barriers remain that complicate the process for families. The Farmer Review found that women are held, on average, 63 miles from their homes, with a significant number held more than 100 miles from their home, compared to an average of 50 miles for men. There are now no remand centres for women in London due to the closure of HMP and YOI Holloway, meaning families must now travel much further to maintain family ties. The further away an individual is imprisoned from their family, the less likely it is that they will receive frequent visits. This impedes the ability of prisoners to be primary carers and makes it more challenging for them to play an active role in family life. This is particularly problematic for mothers with dependent children.

I used to cry in school lots and then when my friends heard about it people were gossiping about it so I just kept it a secret. – Child

Release – the process of re-establishing family relationships and routines outside of the prison gate is particularly difficult when families are not engaged in release planning, especially when prison leavers have dependent children or are in recovery from addiction. This difficulty is only aggravated by the lack of external support that families receive the period leading up to and after release, which poses short and long-term challenges that impact families and children.

I mostly see him when my brother’s around cos I don’t really like speaking to him now. – Child

It is important to note that not all families and children have negative experiences with criminal processes and proceedings. Equally, as we champion the voice of the unexpected victims of crime, we must acknowledge the trauma experienced by direct victims of crimes being processed through the system. Whilst it would seem that the aim of a prison would be for it not to exist; for reformation to thrive and victims of crime (direct and indirect) and perpetrators to be served by Justice in the best possible way, we know that life is messy and systems are complicated. What is certain is that it is time to put families at the heart of the criminal justice system once and for all.

Our Kids Matter parenting programme hopes to make a real difference to families in prison. Parent-child contact from the confines of a prison cell is sporadic but don’t underestimate the impact that a parent can have on a child even if conversation is by phone and visitation is regulated; we hope to inspire positive interactions with our evidence-informed programme material and facilitated group conversations. If we can equip prison parents with the tools to build strong relationships with their children, those children will have a better chance of increased well-being in life.


If you would like to find out more about Kids Matter’s work with parents in prison, we would love to chat! Please contact us at 



Prisoners’ Education Trust: Prisons after lockdown: restrictions, regimes and recovery

The Golden Thread 2022

The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime

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