I’m doing a small piece of work at the moment with the design team at the RSA on prisons, looking in particular at the experience families have of visiting their loved ones when they’re inside. It’s fascinating so far, and I’m excited about my trip to Newcastle tomorrow to meet the students at Northumbria University who are participating in the project. So I thought I’d get my thoughts in order about what I saw when I went to HMP Wandsworth last week.
The thing I find most shocking is that visits are still part of behaviour incentive programmes at many prisons – in other words, you get fewer visits if you behave badly. This surely flies in the face of large amounts of evidence that maintaining family ties is key to reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Having seen how visits work now I am stunned that anyone can keep any semblance of family life going with two hourly visits a month – so to make them part of an incentive programme seems plain bonkers to me.
Still, the demands on the family members themselves are almost certainly enough to put people off visiting. Once you’ve gone through the rigmarole of securing a visit (not every prison has an email facility yet, and many have just one phone line that is not always staffed), each visit lasts between an hour and two hours, depending on how busy the prison is. But often prisoners are not near home – they get moved around quite regularly to prevent them from forming relationships (hmm, positive relationships are another factor in reducing reoffending so here’s another perverse thing) – meaning that families often have to travel a long way, at some considerable expense, to even get there in the first place.
Once they arrive, they go to the visitor’s centre, usually housed outside the prison walls and run by excellent organisations like PACT. From here they are walked over to the prison, checked in – you cannot take anything into the visits hall except baby food and loose change to buy refreshments – and then taken to the holding room. Here all the visitors are lined up, and searched by officers and by dogs. At the prison I went to last week this holding room was probably the most depressing place I’ve been to for a long time: broken chairs, a stench from overflowing toilets, no tables or anything to occupy kids during the waiting game. Once inside the visits hall, visitors are allocated a table, and the prisoners are brought up from the cells. Prisoners must stay sitting and cannot move around during the visit.
Once the visit is over, the visitors are escorted back to the holding room. From here they are taken out in small groups, back to the visitors centre to collect their stuff and then back into the real world. Depressing stuff.
Still, it’s not all bad. The PACT staff I’ve met treat visitors and prisoners with genuine respect. In fact, the person who showed us round last week worked hard to correct many of the Daily Mail-esque attitudes of some of the students towards prisoners, reminding the group that ‘life’s tough and shit happens: prisoners and their families are no different to us, they’re just people, they’re not evil and sometimes things just happen’. Some officers clearly work hard to make the visit as positive as possible; however many still struggle with an institutionalised mindset that sees visits as ‘soft’.
It seems to me that visits are woefully under-used and undervalued as part of the process of rehabilitating the vast majority of prisoners who will be released again. No use is made of the time to help prisoners and their partners renegotiate their relationships, to deal with the anger that is likely to have been caused by getting banged up. There are erratic links made to advisory services who could help couples work out issues around housing, benefits, jobs and skills together. I hope that the students participating in this project spot those as opportunities and make some suggestions about this.
Finally, so what did the design students think of the visit? ‘It surprised me’ said one. Another said ‘it felt like being in a hospital – like you shouldn’t be there, that you couldn’t touch anything’. Still, reflecting on their decision to get involved in the project, most of them were resoundingly positive, feeling that it had really challenged their design skills, and, my favourite comment of all, ‘it’s made me think about whether I want to design more crap stuff for people to buy and then throw away’. Hurrah for that.