By Emma Grindulis, Policy and Communications Officer, Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights)
“I like sitting back and watching my daughter bond with her dad. He can be a parent, too, and that is good for me!…it’s a great, great thing. Without this, I don’t know where Zoe would be!”
I recently attended the first annual Prison Visitors’ Centres Conference at HMP Barlinnie, Glasgow. It celebrated the work of Prison Visitors’ Centres and discussed how the National Prison Visitors’ Centre Steering Group can achieve its ambition to have a visitors’ centre in all 15 prisons in Scotland.
There are currently 7 Prison Visitors’ Centres in Scotland (Perth, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Polmont, Addiewell, Grampian and Corton Vale) and each made a presentation showing the many positive impacts that Visitors’ Centres can have on children affected by imprisonment. This includes creative activities in play areas where prisoners can develop relationships with children, as well as the provision of practical and emotional support and information and advice on a range of issues. I learnt how a welcoming and friendly face from Prison Visitors’ Centres is important for visitors, especially those who may have travelled a long way and could be feeling very emotional on arrival. The benefits of Prison Visitors’ Centres can be wide-ranging, stretching into local communities and frequently offering a gateway to community-based support.
Having a family member in prison can have a tremendous impact on a child. Together’s annual State of Children’s Rights report repeatedly highlights the need for this large and vulnerable group of children to be recognised and supported. Prison Visitors’ Centres are one of the ways through which to ensure that their rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) are respected, and their needs met. This has been highlighted through a number of international recommendations made to UK governments in relation to the rights of children affected by imprisonment. In 2008, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended UK governments:
“Ensure support to children with one or both parents in prison, in particular to maintain contact with the parent(s) (unless this is contrary to their best interests)…”
Further discussions held by the UN Committee in 2011 led to a recommendation that:
“Prison visitor centres should be developed and maintained as a way of providing fun, information and social opportunities for children of incarcerated parents. They should be available to families before and after visits.”
There has been a growing awareness of the value of Prison Visitors’ Centres. Projects providing opportunities for the whole family to come together are highly regarded, such as the Barnardo’s Scotland Parenting Matters project in Polmont Young Offenders Institution. During the conference, a number of projects were mentioned as being particularly successful in supporting maintained contact including virtual visits, Family Learning Sessions and Fun Days within the prison setting.
During the 2012 UK Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Slovakia made a recommendation to the UK, to:
“Ensure that the best interests of the child are taken into account when arresting, detaining, sentencing or considering early release for a sole or primary carer of the child, bearing in mind that visits of a parent in prison are primarily a right of the child rather than a privilege of the prisoner that can be withdrawn as a disciplinary measure.”
Since this recommendation was accepted by the UK Government, significant steps forward have been taken in Scotland. As reported in Together’s State of Children’s Rights report 2013, progress is being made with regards to child contact, and prisons are largely no longer using visits as a means of controlling prisoner behaviour. This is welcome progress and it is critical that this progress is consistent in every prison and that there is no regression to such measures.
As indicated above and through visitor testimonies offered during the conference at HMP Barlinnie, there is much evidence to support the vast positive impacts Prison Visitors’ Centres are having on children and families affected by imprisonment. However, significant barriers remain:
- There is inconsistency in the amount of funding available to Prison Visitors’ Centres.
Short-term funding prevents planning for the future, being able to guarantee lasting support to vulnerable children and families and investing in developments to improve services.
- There is a lack of building space for play areas, confidential rooms and information hubs. Prison Visitors’ Centres are often based in ‘make do’ locations rather than purpose built spaces to suit the needs of visitors.
- The lack of resources makes it hard to recruit staff to provide the essential support to children and families visiting the prison.
- A lack of awareness remains amongst prison staff, statutory bodies, local authorities and government of the significance of guaranteeing support through Prison Visitors’ Centres for all children and families affected by imprisonment.
The National Prison Visitors’ Centre Steering Group has committed to take forward key points from the discussions at the conference, to inform how it can improve support to Prison Visitors’ Centres and achieve its ambition to have a visitors’ centre in every prison. Together will invite the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to scrutinise Scotland’s progress in the forthcoming UK UNCRC review, to ensure that international recommendations to support children affected by imprisonment are fulfilled.
A strong message I took from the conference was the need for a national commitment to provide a Visitors’ Centre at every prison in Scotland. Such a commitment would be in line with the new duties placed on government and public bodies to further children’s rights through the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act. And it would help to fulfil the government’s commitment to make Scotland the ‘best place to grow up’ for EVERY child.