Reoffending rates are 21 percentage points higher for people who said they had not received family visits whilst in prison compared to those who had.

Prisoners’ experience of prison and outcomes on release. (MoJ, 2014)

Having only ever gone back, as a visitor, for the first time, a week shy of my first full 12 months out. My personal experience is made up of my one and only experience of being a prison visitor. Which, being someone that is institutionalised, it certainly made for an interesting few hours.

May 31st 2018, I was due to visit my mate in HMP Norwich, it would not only be the first time as a visitor but also my first time going in to prison in any other guise than as a prisoner. I was still living in Norwich at the time and was within walking distance of the prison. From what I know, a very fortunate position that many do not have the luxury of.

Women are often held further away from their families, making visiting difficult and expensive. The average distance is 64 miles, but many are held considerably further away.

Women in Prison, State of the Estate, 2nd edition (2015)

I felt quite calm as I left my residence, the House of Genesis, a supported accommodation home, from which, with fantastic support from the staff, especially the manager Donna, I was able to use it as a base to build my foundations. The closer I got to the prison, the faster my heart started to beat, then my palms started to sweat by the time I got to the top of Knox Road. In fact I froze for about five minutes. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest.

HMP Norwich
Knox Road leading to HMP Norwich

I had a smoke, pulled myself together, then made my way to the visitors centre, are they all portakabins? I actually felt quite calm as I booked myself in, received my number and security bracelet, then decamped my personal belongings in a locker like I was off for a swim at the local pool, albeit fully clothed. My number was then called and I was to make my way to the visitors entrance. Twenty yards of one of the hardest walks I have ever undertaken. I kid you not. I thought I was going to pass-out, especially not having previously dealt with this feeling. Then the strangest thing happened, or not?

As I went in the visitors entrance, I was met by a friendly face behind the counter, it was the same officer who was behind the reception counter the day I got out. Immediately I was back in prison mode and my nerves disappeared. When I went in the visitors hall, I had heard my name called about five times, and called my hello’s back. The officer at the desk was actually my personal officer when I was in B wing, two weeks after my arrival in 2015. Between booking the visit and visit day I had changed my mobile number, this meant my mate couldn’t get hold of me to confirm I was coming. So, although arrangements were made had I showed and they sent for him, this meant he wasn’t at our table. Before I got to our pre-defined seating arrangement, the prisoner, on the table next to where I was, and I had been serving time opposite each other on M wing, before his release. I automatically sat in the chair meant for the prisoner, which, I can assure you, raised a few laughs. The visit with my mate went really well, so good to see him, although I’d have rather we could have met up in a pub. At the end though, I felt more inclined to go through the door he was using for an exit rather than the one us visitors were leaving by! I wonder how many visitors that haven’t been to prison can relate to my feeling? I don’t mean that in a patronising way.

Only three in 10 prisoners reported that it was easy or very easy for family to visit them at their current prison – 16% said they did not receive visits at all.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons: Life in prison (2016)

One of the hardest things as a prisoner is saying goodbye after a visit to your own children. I know! I’ve done it on far too many selfish occasions. After a visit, any social visit really, and some legal ones, although my persona would show ‘front’, I’d be eating away inside. Fortunately, I had a single cell to go back to and go through the self-pity and tears stage alone. It would normally take me around two days to get my head back in the game after a visit. It’s the children who suffer most during a sentence, and yes a concern too late after the event, however, who are we to say that full consideration for the child wasn’t a reason for the crime to have been committed in the first place? Not all crime is for profit, some is out of pure desperation.

The life of a child with a parent in jail, especially if that parent is the primary care giver, must be extremely difficult and yet, and a big YET!, where is the support for, not only the children, but also the families? Maintaining family ties has to be a key policy at the Ministry of Justice, and the government as a whole. Not just with words, but support, backed by money and backed by action.

Prisoners’ lives matter and so do those of their families and loved ones, who, although maybe not a part of the initial problem, are, as the Ministries and other agencies statistics show, extremely fundamental in the solution of reducing reoffending. Compassion is an action.

 

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