The Hardest of Journeys

I took a call on the Families Outside Helpline last week from a man planning to visit his newly sentenced fiancée in prison to tell her that her mother had died that morning. Understandably, he wanted to tell her face to face that same day and, having managed to make the necessary arrangements with the prison, he set about organising his journey. With public transport as his only option, he called the Families Outside Helpline because he didn’t want to tell Traveline his final destination; families affected by imprisonment can feel such a sense of shame that telling even an anonymous voice on the phone is difficult.

After taking all his details, I called Traveline on his behalf, and in describing his options to him in our subsequent call, I had a clear sense of how difficult and complicated getting to a prison can be.  His journey required four different buses and a travel time of over three and a half hours each way. In order to be on time for a visit at 8pm, he needed to leave his house just after 4pm and would return home well after midnight – all for half an hour with his fiancée.

Travelling long distances is just one challenge among many that people with a family member in prison face. It’s a challenge that comes at an enormous cost, too, and not just a financial one: difficulty in travelling to prisons is a major reason for loss of contact between prisoners and their families and in part explains why about half of all prisoners lose contact with their families as a direct result of going to prison – a sobering statistic, given that prisoners who maintain contact with their families while in prison reoffend up to six times less than those who don’t. Family contact literally reduces crime.

For some families there is help available: in Scotland, Sacro’s Travel Service provides regular transport to Scottish prisons. Services like Sacro’s are a lifeline for families; they help maintain and sustain family relationships and facilitate prisoners’ reintegration to the community on release. But this is a limited provision, facilitated by volunteers and available primarily to those travelling from Edinburgh and Glasgow.

A sense of powerlessness, and of things happening ‘to’ you when a family member goes to prison, is often compounded by the fact that prisoners can be moved at short notice, and sometimes without explanation. Families Outside recently supported a mother who used to have a fairly straight forward journey to visit her son in prison until he was moved without warning to another prison. Her new journey is a round trip of over one hundred miles, comprising two buses and a train each way, taking an average of four hours for a forty-five minute visit. Bringing her four grandchildren with her adds to the challenge of such a journey, not to mention the financial cost, and she was delighted to learn from our Family Support Worker that she can claim assistance from the Assisted Prison Visits Unit (APVU).

Part of the National Offender Management Service (yet applicable in Scotland), APVU aims to promote family ties by contributing to the cost of prison visits for those in receipt of a low income. Recently, the APVU fund came under heavy criticism from the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which claimed that taxpayers “shouldn’t have to subsidise visits to inmates on top of the cost of their crimes.” Given that the families of prisoners tend not to speak up about how this devastating experience affects them, I would like to highlight the following to members of the TaxPayers’ Alliance:

  • The families are not guilty. Children and families of prisoners suffer the consequences of someone else’s behaviour; we are literally punishing the innocent. Indeed, children and families of prisoners are often targeted and blamed for an offence as though they are the guilty ones.
  • Claimants of APVU have to be on benefits, and they have to produce receipts stamped by the prison to prove that they have taken their visit. Only 2nd class travel directly to and from the prison is covered, with mileage reimbursed at 11p per mile (compared to the 40p per mile business travellers can usually claim). The scheme is highly unlikely to “be abused for other trips or lavish taxi journeys” as the chairman of the TaxPayers’ Alliance claims; prison visits are hardly a good ‘day out’ for the family.
  • APVU covers the cost of only two visits a month. When someone is in custody on remand, the family can have daily visits of half an hour, so the fund covers a fraction of their visits entitlement. Not long ago, Families Outside supported a lady whose partner was on remand in HMYOI Polmont (Scotland’s national facility for young people in prison). She lived in Dumfries and travelled every day with her two toddlers to see her partner in Polmont – a journey that took 5 hours on public transport. With APVU only covering two of those visits, she was putting herself in considerable financial difficulties to maintain contact with her partner and to ensure that her children were able to see their dad.
  • Surveys reveal that only 30-50% of families are aware that they can claim travel costs through the APVU scheme. An important part of the work of organisations like Families Outside is to raise awareness of the availability of such support.
  • Children have the right to contact with their parents unless this is not in the child’s best interest. In the vast majority of cases, children want to stay in touch with their parent in prison but often find it difficult to do so. Parents in prison are not automatically bad parents any more than those outside are automatically good ones.

In challenging APVU as a waste of taxpayers’ money, the TaxPayers’ Alliance takes an extremely short-sighted view of a very complex issue. Family contact is our greatest asset in preventing offending and reoffending, and supporting this contact where appropriate is worth every penny. If prisoners were held as near to their homes as possible, and if both financial (APVU) and practical (e.g. Sacro) support for the physical journey were available as a matter of course, perhaps we could then concentrate on supporting the most important journey of all – the one of rehabilitation and integration back into society.

Blog by our Child & Family Support Manager, Sarah Roberts
– as seen on No Offence!

NO OFFENCE! is an award-winning Community Interest Company with a vision, ‘to be the leading cross sector criminal justice community in the world.” Our mission is to support and encourage the criminal justice sector to exchange information, collaborate and promote wider societal understanding of the solutions needed to effect positive change.

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