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No easy journey: families punished by barriers to prison visits


Failure to support contact impacts the family, who have not committed an offence but nevertheless suffer the consequences

Children are walking miles along dark narrow roads, mothers are having to choose which child gets to visit their dad, families skipping meals, and some taking six buses and two trains in an 11-hour journey to visit their loved ones in prison.

These are some of the many barriers new research by Families Outside has uncovered in its new report, No Easy Journey.

It paints a stark picture of the cost and impact of imprisonment to families and calls attention to the issues families face when trying to maintain contact with someone in prison.

Research shows that people held in prison are up to six times less likely to reoffend if they maintain contact with their families during imprisonment and meaningful connection between families and loved ones in prison, where appropriate, can support the health and wellbeing of everyone involved. 

Failure to support such contact punishes the family, who have not committed the offence but nevertheless suffer the consequences.

Key findings from the research are that local travel services do not effectively and fairly service all prisons, and families are making sacrifices to be able to attend visits. The only current financial support available to families to help with travel costs for visits is failing, and barriers must be removed for travel to help support meaningful contact between families.

Imprisonment creates, sustains and deepens poverty among children and families, and they are being plunged further into debt whilst trying to maintain consistent contact with a loved one in prison. Many struggle with travel costs, geographical challenges and local travel options, all of which limit their ability to access in-person visits. Some families have even given up their homes, relocating closer to the prison their loved one is in.

Local travel services were highlighted as adding to the problem of accessing visits. Due to the timings of services, the length of time it takes, and multiple connections, families are faced with the difficult decision of whether to make the journey.

For those that do make the journey, the timings of prison visits are often not coordinated to consider local travel options, meaning families are walking miles, cutting visits short and taking taxis, incurring more costs.

The Scottish Prison Service is working to support meaningful contact between families and their loved ones but could do more, such as considering the impact on families if a person is transferred to another prison for administrative reasons.

Families are also struggling to access financial aid. The Help With Prison Visits scheme is the only financial support available to help the poorest families access visits, but this scheme does not reach everyone who needs it. 

Many families are unaware of the benefit, it can be difficult to apply for, and the process for claiming can take too long, leaving families out of pocket.

The scheme also doesn’t consider many specific situations facing families, such as for those living in rural areas and those with issues that prevent them from travelling by public transport. For those claiming mileage, the payments also fail to reflect the current costs of travel, reimbursing only 13p per mile.

Ultimately, the report shows that we are still seeing too many barriers and too little support for families to maintain effective contact.

Families have a right to maintain contact with a loved one in prison, but they cannot keep bearing the burden of these costs.

Families Outside hopes that the findings from this research will help key stakeholders such as the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service to recognise and address the financial burdens placed on vulnerable families.

Prof Nancy Loucks, CEO of Families Outside, said: “Imprisonment fractures families, yet we have failed time and again to repair those fractures through strengthening support for family ties. This report is the fourth call for action from Families Outside to improve travel and transport for families when someone goes to prison. With cross-portfolio recognition and response, I hope it will be the last one we need to make.”

A Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said:  “We recognise the importance of strong family relationships, both to those in our care and their loved ones, particularly children, and our staff work hard to support this. While we have introduced a number of options to support family contact, including in cell telephones, which replaced prison issued mobiles; virtual visits; and email a prisoner, we understand that this can only complement, rather than replace, face to face visits.

"We recognise there is still more that we and others can do and are committed to working with partners, such as Families Outside, to explore all available options.”

To read the full report, visit



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