June 15, 2023


From the Executive Director: What we can learn from the UK
Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards here, writing to you from Cambridge, England.

Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards here, writing to you from Cambridge, England.

For the past several months I have had the privilege of working out of the Prisons Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. My sincere thanks to the Prison Society board and staff for trusting me to lead the organization from afar. As I prepare to come back home to Pennsylvania, I wanted to share with you a bit about what I have learned.  

In March, Prison Monitoring Director Noah Barth and Family and Community Supports Director Kirstin Cornnell joined me in touring English correctional facilities and speaking with allied organizations and officials. The facilities here reminded us of SCI Dallas and the Berks County Jail. In many ways, they look and feel like Pennsylvania facilities. There are metal detectors, rats, people saving up food in their cells so they don't go hungry between meals, the same unpleasant smell. But there are some striking differences–especially how the prison system in England and Wales has made supporting family connections a core part of its mission

UK policy works to strengthen family ties

Politicians in the United Kingdom have recognized that strengthening ties between incarcerated people and their communities has the power to keep them from returning to prison. Research by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) shows that people who receive visits are 39 percent less likely to commit a new crime, which is consistent with findings in Pennsylvania state prisons. “People who visit, and make the often Herculean effort to keep in contact, need to be treated as valued allies in the rehabilitation cause,” wrote Lord Michael Farmer of the British parliament, in a report that led to an overhaul of how the country’s prison service supports family connection. 

In 2019, HMPPS adopted a new policy to strengthen family ties for incarcerated people. It requires each prison to have a strategy to support relationships with family members and significant others and a senior manager dedicated to overseeing these efforts. HMPPS also established a new Family Services Division with a staff of 60 focused on encouraging family connection, including one-on-one support to families, and programming to help incarcerated people wanting to rebuild family connection.

The HMPPS recognizes that family is "the third leg of the rehabilitative stool along with education and employment" to quote Tim Lloyd, the agency’s head of family services in his great podcast "The Secret Life of Prisons." How do most people coming home from prison find jobs and housing? Family. How do most people coming home from prison deal with the difficult transition? Family. And yet we in Pennsylvania seem to do everything we can to degrade family ties.  

Yes, some people in prison have counter-productive relationships with their families. But in a longitudinal study into the family ties of 80 people returning to community from prison, the UK prison inspectorate found that not a single study participant had harmful relationships. Nevertheless, some Pennsylvania facilities act as if most family relationships are harmful. Just look at the 2020 Dads Resource Center Audit of Jail Visiting Policies, which found that 28 Pennsylvania jails would not allow contact visits between incarcerated parents and their children. No hugs allowed, just talk to Mom or Dad through plexiglass. That audit was before the pandemic. It's even worse now.   

Phones in Cells, Caring Staff in Visiting Rooms

When Family and Community Support Director Kirstin Cornnell came to England, we joined our sister organization PACT at a “resettlement prison” in the London district of Brixton. These prisons are similar to county jails in Pennsylvania, except they also house people who are finishing their sentences and will be returning to the local community. Kirstin was struck by how the incarcerated people in this prison wore their regular clothes rather than the typical jumpsuit uniforms.

Kirstin also noted that each person had a telephone inside their cell. They had to pay to use them, and, like in Pennsylvania, everyone had a very limited call list, but it afforded them the ability to instantly connect with loved ones with a greater degree of privacy. Prison staff, particularly medical staff, noted the benefit of the phones. When someone has a question, they can call directly into a cell and speak privately, without using all the staff time that is required to move an incarcerated person from one part of a facility to another.  

The visiting rooms were staffed by workers from a non-profit, not correctional officers, out of a belief that having uniformed officers in a visiting room will be re-traumatizing for some family members. There was more movement, more physical connection between incarcerated people and their loved ones, and food was available. 

“The UK invests in family connection as an important piece of the corrections system,” Kirstin says. “It shows us how strengthening these relationships can be an intentional part of the model for prisons.”

Thank you for this opportunity to learn. We are committed to having these lessons be put to use in Pennsylvania.


Claire Shubik-Richards

Sky Blue Heart
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