Family firms and the community conscience

I recently saw a pigeon with a missing left foot at 2 different times and in 2 different places on the same day. The suffering of this pigeon invoked a bit of compassion in my hardened heart and the co-incidence was a challenge to basic logic and reasoning. Other inexplicable observations can nag me a little more.

During working visits to Italian and Romanian justice organisations over the last couple of years, I have asked prison officers about prisoners refusing family visits. One of the Romanian officers replied that refusing a family visit would immediately invoke a psychological support referral because something serious must be wrong. Each response suggested to me that refusing family visits was something of a rarity in Italy and Romania.

It has left me with one of those nagging inexplicable observations because this appears to be inconsistent with what I hear in the UK about prisoners refusing family visits.

Perhaps my perceptions about the UK are grossly inaccurate and perhaps some foreign aspects may have been lost in translation or obscured by prison politics. I’ve got no groundbreaking evidence, just a distracting rumination about a perceived inconsistency.

Refusing a family visit might be a symptom of severe depression and institutionalisation or it might also be a response to an argument or dispute.

I asked an Italian sociologist, Rosario Palese from Fondazione Abacus, about my observation, and his explanation related to family ties being at the heart of both Italian and Romanian culture and that provided some context.

There is evidence that regular family visits are linked with reduced re-offending rates and there is also evidence that families make critical contributions to finding jobs, homes and maintaining relationships.

Logic dictates that resource to enable, promote and facilitate positive family contact for prisoners is a valuable investment of public money. There is also evidence of significant improvements for family contact with a number of innovations like video-links facilitated by Apex, the work of Storybook Dads and of course the excellent Families Outside services among others.

This leaves a simple question in my mind… “Why is there not a specific prisons KPI for family contact?”  I think it would provide more insightful information than the number of absconders or escapes. Connecting this to our work at Recruit With Conviction, we believe that positive family engagement probably makes the biggest single contribution to finding and sustaining work after prison.

It sounds simple but it also begs another question about all of those people in prison who have no positive family connections and the importance of our communities to be the surrogate families of citizens returning from prison. Many of whom are traumatised, lonely and vulnerable with less obvious scars than a one footed pigeon which might hobble into our life. Given a chance though, they may well surprise you with humility, humanity and honest hard work.

Richard Thomson, Director

Recruit With Conviction