Cambridge University study highlights the benefits of family workers in women’s prisons

On Wednesday 14 September, the Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact), a national charity which supports people affected by imprisonment, announced the findings of ‘Bridging The Gap’, Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology’s evaluation of its Family Engagement Service (FES).

The team of three researchers, led by Dr Jane Dominey from the Centre for Community, Gender and Social Justice Institute of Criminology at University of Cambridge, conducted interviews with prisoners, prison staff, family members of prisoners and Pact staff in one women’s prison and one adult male prison.* A key element of the research was to examine the different approaches of the FES in women’s prisons and how it aims to address the issues that are specific to female prisoners.

The research team found encouraging evidence in both female and male prisons that Pact’s service, which involves specialist family workers operating inside prisons, improves the emotional well-being of prisoners and motivates improved compliance with the prison regime. It revealed an important link with reducing emotional distress, self-harm, violence and disruptive behaviour, all of which are of major concern in prisons across England and Wales.

One female prisoner who was interviewed described the effect of the support she received from Pact’s Family Engagement Worker (FEW), saying:
“Without this support I’d be self-harming or kicking off. I’d be very angry or finish up in fights.” 

When looking specifically at the women’s prison, the research showed that the FES is most frequently accessed by women seeking information and advice, and emotional support.

A number of the female prisoners who were interviewed had been sole carer of their children at the point of their imprisonment, though this was not true for any of the male prisoners who were interviewed. For this reason, a key service that the FEWs are providing for the women is liaison with community services, particularly Children’s Services, acting as a conduit between social workers, the prison, the prisoner and family members in the community. The research also reports above average rates of liaison with prison based agencies and departments.

Researchers interviewed prison officers and governors, who noticed a marked improvement in the behaviour of some prisoners who made use of the service. A senior governor at the women’s prison also explained how the specialist knowledge and expertise provided by the FES eased the workload of offender supervisors and improved the service provided to prisoners. She said:
‘I think it works very well because the offender supervisors are on board with it, and understand [the FEW’s] role is filling a gap which has been there for a long time. So it was a huge sort of flood of relief when she was able to take up that role. And she is a massive support for their workload, you know, and their cases. And [she’s] actually within the Offender Management Unit so she is able to feedback and talk to everybody about cases…. It’s that sort of joint working that is really important in here, and it’s working well.’

The service was acknowledged as not being a universal panacea, as some prisoners have serious mental illness or other issues which need more specialist psychological support, but was welcomed by all prison staff and prisoners who had experienced it as having a positive impact. The review found that the service goes far beyond providing information and guidance on family issues; and supports prisoners and their families to access support for complex and in-depth issues such as child protection, mental health, physical health, and alcohol and drug problems.

During the review, the link between improved family relationships and an increase in hope for the future emerged strongly. Interviews with the prisoners showed that for many of them, this hope provided the motivation required to engage with their sentence plan, attend courses, seek therapy, and aim to progress towards release.

Andy Keen-Downs, CEO of Pact, welcomed the findings, saying:
‘We already know from other research that prisoners who maintain relationships with their family during imprisonment are around 39% less likely to re-offend when released. This new study also tells us that our specialist family engagement workers in prisons also help to reduce self-harm, suicide and violence in prisons.’

Dr Jane Dominey, Researcher from the Centre for Community, Gender and Social Justice Institute of Criminology at University of Cambridge said:
‘This review adds to the evidence pointing to the importance of building and maintaining family relationships for prisoners and, importantly, their children. The Pact Family Engagement Service brings a skilled and professional approach to this work.’

In 2015/16 2343 women in prison used the Pact Family Engagement Service.

To read the report in full, please click here.

*50 interviews were conducted – 28 with prisoners, 12 with prison staff, 6 with family members of prisoners, 4 with Pact staff.

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