The Golden Thread
In our forthcoming article in the Prison Service Journal entitled ‘Loved ones of remand prisoners: The hidden victims of COVID-19’ we examine how individuals supporting prisoners on remand are likely to be negatively affected by the Government’s action to extend the amount of time remand prisoners can be incarcerated for. Although we understand that many difficult decisions and restrictions have been made in order to limit the spread of the virus, once again loved ones (family, friends and significant others1) of prisoners are being ignored or forgotten when decisions are being made. Familial relationships are considered the ‘Golden Thread’2 and should be empowered to hold a much louder voice in such matters. Based on insights gathered from interviews with 61 loved ones of remand prisoners prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we draw attention to three particularly damaging consequences of extending periods of remand. These are: Systematic court issues; Practical and relational consequences; and The ripple effect on mental health.
Systematic court issues
In response to increasing delays in our court systems, in September 2020 the Government requested that remand prisoners be legally held in prisons for an additional two months. Despite claiming that COVID-19 caused this bottleneck, there were actually significant delays prior to the pandemic. We found that court delays are often due to a number of pre-existing factors, for example delays locating witnesses and completing relevant reports/assessments. COVID-related challenges have certainly intensified these issues, and there is nothing to suggest that if held in prison for longer these remand prisoners will obtain greater levels of support from their defence team (who also have COVID related challenges3). Importantly, being in prison for any length of time is punitive, and extending the length of time remand prisoners can be held in prison (remembering that those on remand have not yet been sentenced to prison, and may have not been convicted of an offence) is a very problematic thought to entertain. This is because a longer time of uncertainty – while waiting for court decisions – adds to the emotional turmoil both prisoners and their families experience.
Practical and relational consequences
By their very nature prisons are an ideal environment for the spread of infection. As such, social visits (where family members visit prisoners) were suspended in all prisons serving England and Wales for the first time in March 2020, and were suspended again in November. Although we saw some lifting of restrictions when COVID levels reduced in the community over the summer, the re-introduction of face to face social visits was slow across the prison estate – meaning that many families did not meet in person for over six months. We argue restrictions of this nature have the potential to cause significant pain to those supporting prisoners, particularly so in light of issues relating to the availability of limited virtual visits in prisons. Many loved ones in the community provide practical, financial and emotional support to remand prisoners, often acting as a middle (wo)man between those in prison and solicitors, probation officers, housing officers etc in the community. Increasing the amount of time that these loved ones must navigate these systems with limited contact, whilst juggling existing commitments often made more complicated by COVID, simply drags out the pressure felt by these hidden individuals and adds strain to these important relationships.
The ripple effect on mental health
Continuing to provide support to those remanded in prison is not an easy task under ‘normal’ circumstances. In our research prior to COVID restrictions, those we spoke to described high levels of concern about those remanded in prison, receiving limited reassurance via contact through visits, telephone calls, letters and emails. Prisons have placed restrictions on out of cell activities, for example education, employment, worship, the library or the gym, as well as general association time, which is likely to be incredibly concerning for loved ones who have extremely limited opportunities to physically check-in with those in prison. Extending the time in which families do not know how long they will be separated for, in combination with reduced contact and increased concerns about the physical and emotional safety of those in prison, is likely to have a negative ripple effect on the mental health of those left to hold together the pieces in the community.
Despite increasing attention on the importance of family ties, we argue that the impact on loved ones of remand prisoners are hidden when decisions are made about the time in which defendants can be incarcerated for and prison conditions. In our research we found high levels of concerns from those in the community about those in prison, and suggest that extending the time in which people can legally be held without being sentenced to prison and COVID related restrictions is simply amplifying these concerns. A greater level of consideration is needed to reduce the impact upon these family members when decisions are made, and more support needs to be put in place to maintain and foster positive relationships between them and those in prison.
1 This term is purposefully broad to include any and all people with whom prisoners might have relationships. For further discussion about terminology when discussing loved ones of prisoners see Masson, I and Booth, N. (2018) Examining prisoners’ families: definitions, developments and difficulties. Available at: https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/ECAN-bulletin-November-2018.pdf (Accessed: 4 January 2019).
2 Lord Farmer. (2017) The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/642244/farmer-review-report.pdf (Date accessed: 1 October 2020).
3 For example juggling home working, childcare and health concerns as well as restricted access to their clients.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.