Headlines: April 15th, 2004

The Home Office is facing a call to address a dramatic fall in the number of prison visits by family members and friends in spite of the record numbers of people held in jail. The call comes from the Prison Reform Trust, which says research shows having a supportive family and friends helps prisoners cope and significantly reduces re-offending.The Trust, in conjunction with the Prison Service, has just published an updated information booklet for prisoners called, “Visiting and Keeping in Touch”. The prison population of England and Wales is currently more than 75,000 but the most recent official figures show the number of visits has fallen by a third in five years even though there has been a 20 per cent increase in the prison population in the same period.

A report from the Prison Reform Trust lists a number of factors that could explain the drop in visits. It says the record prison population means prisoners are held in jails further from home and increasing numbers are being moved from jail to jail at little or no notice. At the same time families and friends have difficulty finding out about how to book visits and bookings lines are often busy or not available at convenient times. In some prisons restrictions on visits or last minute cancellations result from shortages of staff. The Trust also feels there is an overall lack of support for prisoners’ families and friends.

Setting out the need for action it says the Prison Service needs to make helping prisoners maintain links with their family a priority and it should monitor the number of visits and examine the reasons for the fall in visits. It wants each prison to have a well-resourced visitors’ centre and a family contact development officer. Overall, it says, maintaining and strengthening family ties needs to be a central part of a Prison Service resettlement strategy.