Prison visit rules risk keeping thousands of families apart – Barnardo’s

  • Family visits increasingly cut to just basic two hours a month; children are missing out as prisoners are disciplined
  • Intrusive searches see breast milk sniffed and children’s hairbands removed
  • 17,000 children make visits each month in England and Wales
  • Pockets of very good practice exists with prisons offering homework clubs, family days and child-friendly searches

The prison system is jeopardising thousands of children’s right to see their dads, Barnardo’s reveals today, as it calls for an end to family visits being  used to discipline prisoners.

Over 17,000 children visit prisons each month, Barnardo’s survey of the prison visiting system in England and Wales Locked Out reveals.  They are part of the estimated 200,000 children with a parent in prison.

Children have a right under the UNCRC  to contact with both their parents. For children with a parent in prison, visits are crucial in maintaining these relationships  and can help cut down re-offending by 39 per cent.

However visiting hours are increasingly being taken away to punish prisoners following changes to the ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges’ (IEP) scheme, leaving some children with just 2 hours a month to visit dad. This is not the case in women’s prisons where visits are separate from the IEP.

In fact the number of prisoners awarded just two hours visits ‘basic’ status has soared by 52 per cent since the scheme was changed in 2013 (around 900 more prisoners 2012-14). Meanwhile those awarded the ‘enhanced’ status of four or more visiting hours has fallen by 16 per cent (around 5,900 fewer male prisoners 2012-14).

Weekend visiting rights and family visit days – available largely only to enhanced prisoners - are also routinely being taken away under this system, making it extremely difficult for children to spend quality time with their fathers.

Meanwhile intrusive searches see items such as breast-milk sniffed, hair searched and personal effects such as hair decorations taken away. Despite no clear evidence existing that parents use children to smuggle drugs, one boy reports ‘Feeling like you’ve done something wrong’.

The report also finds that  pockets of extremely good practice exists, with some prisons offering family days, homework clubs, child-friendly searches and good play facilities in visiting areas.

Children with a parent in prison face early trauma with little support, which tragically can lead to a much higher risk of mental health issues and offending than their peers.

Barnardo’s is calling for a ‘sea change’ in the way children of prisoners are treated in England and Wales, to put the child first. This includes effectively banning using visiting hours to punish and reward prisoners in male prisons, by separating visits from the IEP scheme – as it has been in woman’s prisons.

Meanwhile, the charity is also calling for searches of children and babies to be made more child-friendly and proportionate to the security risks posed.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan says: “Children with a parent in prison are the innocent victims of someone else's crime.  They struggle with the heart-break of having their parent suddenly taken away, and often don't understand why. Intensifying that loss by taking away precious hours with their parent, or making visits unnecessarily uncomfortable, will only punish the children.

 “Having a parent in prison can leave children more likely to develop mental health issues, underperform at school, and tragically go on to offend themselves.

 “It’s time for a sea change in the way these overlooked and isolated children are treated. Government and prisons must work together to ensure that the visiting system, whilst recognising the need for security, never punishes children. This includes banning visits from being used to discipline the prisoner, and ensuring that searches of families are proportionate.”

The charity is also calling on prisons to allow children to share their homework with their fathers, and to have access to age appropriate play facilities.