Who Are ‘These Families’?

“Concerned about the kinds of people who will be visiting prison, hanging around shops, close to the school, travelling on same bus service, if it cannot be 100% assured this would not put people who live in Milton of Leys area at risk then the prison should not be built.”

“The increase in traffic and ‘undesirable’ visitors the prison will bring poses a risk to residents and children including our own.”

“…also their visitors. Do not want to find myself or my grandchildren sitting next to them on bus.”

You may recognise these quotes as comments from people opposed to the proposed location of the new HMP Inverness. But who are ‘these’ people coming to visit someone on prison? Are ‘they’ somehow posing a risk to our families, our communities, our conventional way of life?

Absolutely not. ‘They’ are using our shops. They are the grandparents and grandchildren on the bus. In sum, ‘they’ are ‘us’ – all of us, any of whom may be in the unfortunate position of having a family member in prison. An estimated 27,000 children each year have a parent go to prison – about twice the number as experience a parent’s divorce in that time.

Nearly every school will have children in it who have a family member who has been in prison, whether from a deprived inner city area or the most affluent of independent schools. In one school where we run workshops for teachers and students, every single workshop of the ten we delivered one day had at least one student with a family member in prison.

This is a hidden issue, not least because of the powerful stigma re-enforced by comments such as those above. Who amongst us is likely to seek help for the problems a family member’s imprisonment brings, when we face attitudes and assumptions such as those above, when we haven’t even committed an offence? How many children have control over the behaviour of their father, their mother, their brother, yet face the ostracism, bullying, and attacks that a family member’s imprisonment brings?

Some of the warnings against the building of the new prison call upon the Scottish Government’s ‘Getting It Right For Every Child’ (GIRFEC) framework for child wellbeing as a reason to locate the prison elsewhere – that somehow children at a local primary school will be damaged by their proximity to the prison and those who visit it. For this, I have three points:

First, what is the evidence this will happen? A half dozen of Scotland’s fifteen prisons are in closer proximity to schools than the proposed site, with no apparent damage to the children in them as a consequence.

Second, there may well be children in that school who have a family member in prison. What kind of damage will they experience in facing the rhetoric surrounding them about visitors to prisons as somehow dangerous or ‘lesser than’ other people? What is the likelihood that they will speak up and seek support?

Third, GIRFEC is about getting it right for EVERY child. There is no evidence that attending school near a prison does any damage whatsoever. There is considerable evidence, however, that children who maintain contact with their family member in prison where appropriate and who receive support and inclusion from their community cope better than those subject to stigma, social isolation, and loss of contact. The Scottish Government recognises this and funded prison visitor centres throughout Scotland specifically to improve support and welcome for families visiting prisons, thereby addressing immediate concerns and preventing longer-term problems. Such measures make our communities healthier and safer rather than the reverse. Surely that’s good for all of us.

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