Cambridge University study highlights benefits of family workers in prisons

Pact 2Today Pact announced the findings of ‘Bridging The Gap’, Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology’s evaluation of its Family Engagement Service (FES) at an event held at The Abbey Centre, Westminster.

The team of three researchers, led by Dr Jane Dominey from the Centre for Community, Gender and Social Justice Institute of Criminology, at the University of Cambridge, conducted interviews with prisoners, prison staff, family members of prisoners and Pact staff in one adult male and one female prison.

The research team found encouraging evidence 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’, saying,

“Without this support I’d be self-harming or kicking off. I’d be very angry or finish up in fights.” 

Researchers also 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 men’s prison made the link between problems involving family members outside the prison, and problems on the inside. He explained that he sometimes made referrals to the Family Engagement Service as part of the adjudication[1] process, understanding that prisoners’ behaviour could be shaped by family problems. He said:

“Sometimes a referral to Pact means that they never appear on my security screen again.”

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.

A key finding from the review is that in the absence of Pact’s Family Engagement Service, the work would fall on prison staff (who already viewed their workload as too high and felt they lacked the expertise to take on family engagement) or not get done at all. An offender supervisor reflected on the family work carried out in the Offender Management Unit before the appointment of the Pact worker, and said: “That’s not to say we didn’t try, we did, but it just wasn’t as effective. And the fact that we have Pact has given the prison a new string to their bow, and something we should be proud of.” Another member of prison staff said that without the FES: “I guess it would be wing staff, trying to find stuff out and bumble their way through.”

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.’

Notes to Editors

The Family Engagement Service is currently provided in 26 prisons across England and Wales and has provided support to over 5000 men and women in prison in the past year. Specialist case workers are based inside the prisons, and focus on the early days of custody, which are a peak risk period for suicide and self-harm resulting from the distress caused by separation from family and a prison sentence. Staff are directly employed by Pact and its two partner charities, NEPACS, in the North East of England, and POPS, in the North West. Staff are provided with specialist training and support, and use a case management system which enables multi-agency working with social workers and other professionals.

The Ministry of Justice has reported record numbers of violent incidents, including assaults between prisoners and on staff, and record numbers of suicides and self-harm incidents. Reductions in the number of prison officers have been cited as a major contributory factor by many commentators, combined with a failure to reduce the overall size of the prison population.  The prevalence of new psycho-active substances has also been recognised as a factor.

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.”

To read the report in full, please click here (pdf)

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