A Connected Scotland:
Tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections
Response from Families Outside
Families Outside welcomes the consultation on A Connected Scotland. We are a national independent charity that works on behalf of children and families affected by imprisonment in Scotland. We do this through provision of a national freephone helpline for families and for the professionals who work with them, as well as through face-to-face support, delivery of training, and development of policy and practice. As such, we actively support thousands of families each year, helping them come to terms with the feelings of grief and separation that come when a loved one is in prison.
Due to the nature of our work, and the issues faced by the families we support, not all of the questions in this consultation are relevant. However we have endeavoured to answer them to the best of our ability, and we hope that we are able to raise points that will demonstrate that families affected by imprisonment need to be recognised as a key group that faces loneliness and isolation due to their circumstances. Consequently they need to be considered in the evolving framework and strategy. As the consultation states: “….this draft Strategy seeks to articulate a vision of the kind of Scotland we want to see, where community connections are increased and no one is excluded from participating in society for any reason.”
Question 1 – What needs to change to reduce isolation and loneliness and increase the range and quality of social connections?
Essentially we need to see a greater understanding of the issues facing families affected by imprisonment and an acceptance that families are innocent.
The primary purpose of a prison sentence is arguably to punish the person who committed the offence. However, a prison sentence can also have knock-on effects for the families outside prison and, in particular, their children.
According to Scottish Government estimates, 20,000 – 27,000 children in Scotland have a parent in prison each year. The children are innocent but are often treated as though they are guilty. They feel stigma, rejection, victimisation, and rarely know who to turn to for support. Raising the understanding and awareness of these individuals is the first step in reducing their isolation from society.
As the consultation states: “Transient loneliness often arises when someone who has strong social connections is unable to interact with their network for a period of time” (p. 5).
This often occurs due to the shame and stigma associated with imprisonment. Without the right support, this can lead to longer periods of loneliness, which “can lead to a permanent state of chronic loneliness which is more difficult to address.” Case studies such as the one below show how this happens when a family member goes to prison:
Kirsten is a housewife of ten years, having previously worked as a teaching assistant in the local school. She lives in a small village and is an active member of the church community. Her husband was a local estate agent before he recently passed away from cancer.
Kirsten has two grown-up children: Alex, 36, and Sam, 31. Sam is married with two young children. Alex is an IT consultant. He is separated from his partner and has a 15-year old daughter who lives with him for part of the week. Alex and his daughter Sally recently came back to live at home to support Kirsten after his dad’s death.
Very early one morning, Kirsten, her son Alex, and granddaughter Sally are woken by loud banging at the door. The police, armed with a search warrant, enter the house. The family has never had any involvement with the police before. Alex is taken away for questioning, and all the police will say is that he is suspected of downloading indecent images of children.
Kirsten is distraught; her initial reaction is disbelief and denial. As time goes on, she is forced to accept the evidence, but she feels such shame that she doesn’t feel that she can talk to anyone.
After a week of not leaving the house, she goes to the local shop. She’s known the shop assistant for a number of years and has built a positive relationship with him. But as Kirsten enters, he seems to look away. He’s normally quite chatty, but seems off hand. She feels judged and lonely and leaves the shop.
Kirsten starts to struggle. She feels depressed and decides to go to the doctor. As she’s waiting in the waiting room, she recognises a few people from the village. They are whispering. She feels that they are talking about her. Kirsten tries to maintain her ‘old life’, tries to go back to church, but she can’t escape the feeling that people are talking about her, judging her.
She becomes more reclusive. She doesn’t feel comfortable discussing these issues with her friends and spends more and more of her time at home alone. Eventually she decides to leave her local community of 40 years and moves away where she feels she won’t be judged.
“People can lose their social connections for a variety of reasons, including major life transitions bereavement and disability” (p. 5).
In our work we often hear from families who describe the experience of imprisonment as a bereavement where they are left with the same feeling of grief as if the family member had died. Children are particularly prone to this type of feeling.
It is also not uncommon for families to hide the truth of imprisonment from their children with the aim of protecting them. In many cases the child will actually know that their family member has been imprisoned but, due to the lack of transparency within the home, they won’t admit they know the truth. This ‘secret within the secret’ means that they are unable to discuss their feelings, leading to greater loneliness.
Question 5 – Do you agree with the evidence sources we are drawing from? Are there other evidence sources you think we should be using?
We are pleased to see such a wide range of evidence and from so many different sources and organisations. However to understand how families affected by imprisonment are impacted by loneliness, it may be helpful to speak to us here at Families Outside. For instance in the 2016/17 financial year, 25% of the families we spoke to were contacting us for emotional support, and 14% had concern for children and family relationships.
Question 7 – Are you aware of any good practice in a local community to build social connections that you want to tell us about?
- Garthamlock Community Group is a group of volunteers with the shared experience of having family members in prison. The group provides peer to peer support, works with local children, and provide an advocacy services for locals and a food bank.
- Citizens Theatre worked with the Garthamlock Community Group and people in prison in HMP Barlinnie to create a two-part play called ‘A Family Sentence’. ‘A Family Sentence’ stemmed from the desire to portray the impact of imprisonment from two points of view – that of the prisoner and that of the family members left behind. A group of men in HMP Barlinnie contributed the perspective of those inside, while a community of relatives on the outside (Garthamlock Community Group) contributed their unique perspectives on the impact of jail sentences on the family. In this way it was intended to encourage greater understanding between the two groups and within family units as well as in wider social and community circles.
- KIN is an arts collective of 14-25 year olds who have all had experience of a close family member in prison. Working in a range of different media, from apps to ‘zines to films and photography, their artworks have resonated with people up and down the country, from policymakers at Holyrood to school groups and conference delegates. Being a part of KIN has shaped the lives of many of the young people involved, but their focus is not on any one person’s journey. Working to create social change, they want to alter the landscape for young people in the future who are affected by family imprisonment. As one KIN member pointed out, their vision to challenge stigma and offer support ‘is more powerful than our individual stories’.
“We know that stigma continues to attach itself to these issues and people are generally reluctant to admit that they may experience loneliness, or that they are socially isolated” (p. 12).
In our work, the stigma of imprisonment has such a profound affect that families affected by imprisonment are often too frightened to talk about their experiences. These particular groups are often cited as the ‘hidden victims’. Identifying them and being able to offer them support is particularly difficult.
In research carried out by Dr Anna Kotova in her paper Lost time, stigma and adaptation: the experiences of long term prisoners’ partners, she interviewed 33 partners of people serving long-term prison sentences. Almost all of the participants described fearing stigmatisation, even when nothing had been said or done to stigmatise them:
“A minority of the participants described experiencing overt stigmatisation. Casey [one respondent] said her partner’s father’s house was petrol bombed. … Others described their houses being graffiti-ed and car tyres being slashed repeatedly. … Such experiences also served to reinforce the fear of future stigmatisation….
“An important finding from this study relates to institutional stigma. Many of the women felt stigmatised when they visited their partners or otherwise interacted with the criminal justice system….
“Casey said the officers in one prison would treat her ‘like an inmate’ … Abruptness, perceived lack of politeness and inattention were often deemed to be a sign that the officer in question saw her as a bad person, undeserving of their attention.”
Question 8 – How can we all work together to challenge stigma around social isolation and loneliness, and raise awareness of it as an issue? Are there examples of people doing this that you are aware of?
From the feedback we receive from families, one of their greatest challenges is how the media position the families, often printing home addresses and identifying them within their local communities. This targets families, increasing their isolation and often causing them to have to leave their home area. In this audio recording, one family member describes her experiences of the media:
“Recent studies have suggested that social isolation can interact with socio-economic status: living in poverty can lead to feelings of loneliness and social isolation…” (p. 13).
When we speak to families, two of the most prevalent issues they face are housing and finance. If the main earner is imprisoned, families often face immediate financial strain which has knock-on effects for their housing status.
According to research by Donald Dickie in his paper, The Financial Impact of Imprisonment on Families, he states: “Many prisoners’ families live in the most deprived areas of the country and struggle with poverty before, during and after the imprisonment.” One major study, Poverty and Disadvantage Among Prisoners Families, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, stated: “significant economic punishment for the family is one of the collateral effects of imprisonment.” Yet another study, Prisoners’ Families and the Ripple Effects of Imprisonment, concluded that: “Research on the collateral effects of imprisonment has shown consistently that it is urban women living in poverty who bear the heaviest burdens of a punishment that is supposedly directed at offenders…Imprisonment can drain families financially, contributing to an intergenerational cycle of poverty, crime and punishment.”
These studies underline the financial implications of a family member’s imprisonment and the increasing difficulties for families who may already be socially isolated.
Question 16 – How can we better ensure that our services that support children and young people are better able to identify where someone may be socially isolated and capable of offering the right support?
At Families Outside we offer training to help those individuals who come into contact with children and young people affected by imprisonment such as teachers, health care professionals, children and families social workers, etc. This training gives attendees a greater understanding of the issues facing families and provides tools and resources that can help them support the families they work with.
However, according to research we have conducted with the University of Salford on behalf of Greater Glasgow & Clyde NHS, we see a rising trend that professionals don’t feel well enough equipped to ask about the impact of imprisonment and how they can support families with this experience. In fact the research suggests that professionals are worried that, by even asking questions, they might increase the feeling of trauma. This perpetuation of secrecy stigmatises families further and leaves them with no one they feel they can speak to.
Question 22 – How can transport services play their part in reducing social isolation and loneliness?
Public transport can be expensive, and distances between families and the prisoner can be huge, which causes a barrier for families and children who want to see their family member. The result is that nearly half of people in prison lose contact with their family as a result of their imprisonment. Although there are some examples of support for travel and transport such as Sacro’s volunteer driver service, such examples are isolated and not available in all areas or to all families. Families Outside would like to see a national travel service that is cost-effective and provides better links to all prisons in Scotland.
Question 23 – How best can we ensure that people have both access to digital technology and the ability to use it?
As well as the cost of public transport, the time and logistics to make a visit can be prohibitive. It is not unusual for the families we support to have disabilities that make travel difficult, or to live in communities far from the prison where their family member is held. Visiting prisons can be traumatic, especially for children and young people, and therefore we would like to encourage more prisons to use digital technology to provide a new means of flexible family contact. This was one of the recommendations from the Council of Europe in April 2018 in relation to children of prisoners, following a similar recommendation by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2012. We are pleased that the Scottish Prison Service is making steps towards a Digital Strategy but would like to see full implementation of these recommendations to improve family contact and reduce the risk of social isolation for families and people in prison, before and after release.