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  • Case study
Childcare facility in a UK prison

Unbreakable family bonds break the cycle of reoffending

Quality of Life Observer

- Prisons

- Dec 11 2013

Strained relationships between prisoners and their families can contribute to continued reoffending. With roughly nine million people already crowded into prisons around the world, there is a growing need to focus on lowering the rate of reoffending. Could a focus on developing meaningful relationships be the answer we seek?

Timing is everything

More than four in 10 Americans who were either in prison, on probation or parole in 2010 are expected to return to prison within three years after their release. To combat this trend, prisons are looking for new ways to lower the rate of reoffending.

As 40-80% of ex-offenders seek support from family members immediately after release, one solution lies in strengthening these bonds while prisoners are still serving their sentences, says Sally Houghton, Head of Assessment and Intervention, Sodexo HMP Forest Bank Prison in the UK. “If we don’t do everything possible to get prisoners to a good place with their families before they leave our door, they’ll be back within days,” says Sally. “We have a responsibility to the prisoners and their families.”

The tie that binds

Studies show that visitations in prison reduced the rate of reoffending by up to 25%.

As such, HMP Forest Bank, like many other prisons, has developed programs aimed at maintaining and strengthening relationships between prisoners and their families. A recent program helped an inmate develop his relationship with his mother throughout his substance abuse sentence. In the months prior to his release, increased counseling sessions prepared the duo for the inevitable challenges ahead. Now successfully re-integrated into society, the ex-inmate and his mother are due back at the prison to speak to inmates about overcoming the obstacles of re-integration. Prisoners are able to see the real impact of how strengthened relationships can benefit their own re-entry.

Similarly London’s Wandsworth Prison made headlines in 2007 when it, too, focused on improving family relationships. According to the prison Governor, Ian Mulholland, the Homework Club – once-a-week homework sessions with inmate fathers and their children – played an important part in maintaining positive family relationships and contributed to the offender's resettlement into the community.

Re-building rooms to re-build relationships

Part of facilitating lasting relationships can be as simple as adjusting the physical environment in visitation areas. Traditionally, the design takes into account safety concerns but not much else; however, a 2011 study shows there is a clear benefit to making prison visitation policies more “visitor friendly".

A design competition held by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in 2009 focused on improving the visitor experience in prisons. According to the organization: “Redesigning the prison visit could benefit inmates, their families and reduce re-offending. The value and importance of design in shaping prisons should not be ignored.”

At Forest Bank, changes are already underway with this philosophy in mind. “The setting has moved away from what you typically see on TV,” says Sally referencing the idea of cold, grey rooms with nothing but folding chairs and tables. While the prison already features play areas for children as well as smaller rooms for sensitive or emotional visits, future plans include game rooms, garden areas and couches – all designed to create a more “home-like” environment to encourage family visits.

Break the cycle

The need to address reoffending goes beyond the prisoners themselves and extends into their families, says Alison Macbean, Children and Families Manager at Forest Bank. In the UK for example, 160,000 children a year experience a parent being sent to prison – this number is even higher than those affected by divorce (the parents of 100,760 children under the age of 16 divorced in 2011). Of these children, nearly two-thirds of the boys will become offenders themselves.

 “We need to break this cycle of intergenerational crime,” says Sally “It’s not just the prisoners that we aim to help, it’s the future generation.”


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