Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Appendix 3: Scotland

The work in Scotland has long been recognised as good practice in maintaining family ties. The focus group participants were a mixture of prison managers and family contact officers, as well as representatives from Families Outside, the voluntary sector agency that provides support for families across Scotland.


The move to be more family-focused was prison-driven back in the 1980s. The Peterhead riots led to the Wolfe Report, and comments about distance travelled for visits, reducing suicides and the acknowledgement that improved family contact can reduce re-offending rates saw significant changes in prison strategy.

The recently established eight community justice authorities across Scotland have a national strategy for the management of offenders, with a much heavier focus on outcomes and maintaining relationships. One of the main differences in Scotland compared to rest of the UK is that there is no probation service. Instead there are Criminal Justice social workers, who work for the same authority as community social workers.

The Management of Offenders Act has nine offender outcomes to do with policy and practice, development, key performance indicators and outcomes. One of the aims is sustained and improved family relationships and a future performance measure in the prison will be family contact.

There are 14 prisons in Scotland, all of which have some level of family contact officer presence. There are inconsistencies across the estate and much depends upon the governor, who determines levels of dedicated family contact development officer support.


Provision for family contact officers is directly from prison establishment. Families Outside, providers of national helpline, receives funding from various sources including the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service.

Policies and procedures

Prisoners on licence and sex offenders do have questions on child care in their assessments. Every child visiting a Schedule 1 offender will be checked out before visiting. Each case is dealt with individually and vetted for risk/safeguards for visit. External social workers work very closely with prisons to identify risk. It was felt that this was a much easier process, as the social workers work for the same service as the social workers in prison.

Remand/untried cases are more problematic as the prison is not always at liberty to implement the same procedures and checks. However, a core assessment for all new prisoners includes child care issues, and this can lead to a referral to the family contact officers. There is a family contact development officers’ hotline, and it was felt that prisoners tend to use the telephone much more easily than talking directly with a family contact officer in the visitor centre.

Child protection procedures are the same across the SPS estate. Policies are based upon statutory procedures and public protection as well as welfare.


A number of partnerships between prisons and statutory and voluntary sector organisations exist in Scotland and many are guided by service level agreements. They include:

There are also programmes in particular prisons for example counselling in partnership with Relate Scotland.

Participants reported that information about partnerships, how they work and the benefits to prisoners and families, is available to them from when they start working in their role. All participants agreed that there is good and growing partnership working between all agencies involved with prisoners and their families.

Families Outside is the only organisation to provide advice and information to families and friends of prisoners through the Scottish Prisoners' Family Helpline. Through research, training and partnership work, it aims to raise awareness of the needs of families affected by imprisonment, with other organisations, as well as supporting prisoners and families. To be effective, Families Outside needs to have particularly good links with the prisons, and as such, they are represented on various groups and panels at all levels of the prison service hierarchy.


Kids VIP provide training to family contact officers and other prison staff on children visiting prisons and child protection as required. Kids VIP and Families Outside regularly visit prisons to highlight their existence to the prison population as well as attend meetings with family contact officers. Families Outside also visit the Scottish Prison Service College while officers are being trained, to build partnership working as early as possible. It also offers training to new officers, social workers, education staff, children’s panel members and Sure Start staff.


There are family contact officers are based in most prisons in Scotland. Their number and the time dedicated to family work varies from prison to prison, depending upon the governor. There is a national induction programme for new prison staff that includes the role of family contact officers and how to refer.

In terms of access to services, all prisoners and families are given a leaflet in court to inform them about services available to them (Edinburgh and Perth also have a visitor centre where families of prisoners can come in, ask questions and pick up leaflets about services). When a prisoner enters prison both the prisoner and their family are supplied with induction packs outlining their rights and access to and availability of services. Leaflets accessible to children are available and there is also a ‘Families Outside’ DVD aimed at children and teenagers about visiting prisons. Families Outside, in conjunction with the prison service, operate a national helpline where families can seek information about any aspect of family contact with prisoners, ranging from visits to release.

The family contact officers coordinate father-and-son bonding visits, in some prisons, for long-term prisoners and families. These happen before the main visits commence and the rest of the family comes in. They also organise enhanced visits and themed family days.

Integrated case management (ICM) provides opportunities for families to engage throughout the ICM process. The community-based social worker is expected to attend case conferences in the prison as well as respond to the family in the community. As such, participants reported a lot of contact with external social workers and reported good working relationships and information flow.

It was felt by the family contact officers that Families Outside have a far greater chance of engaging with families, as they are a voluntary organisation and not in uniform as part of the prison. However, there are then issues around confidentiality and communication between prison and community staff which can impact upon the service received by families. Nevertheless, they see themselves as the prisoners' advocate when it comes to family contact and would hold dialogue with the prison management on behalf of the prisoners.

In Edinburgh participants reported that on the Friday following sentencing, the family and the prisoner are invited to attend a whole-morning session to provide them with information about all the issues such as visits and prison life. These meeting are low-key and child-friendly.

In some establishments before release participants reported that there is standard practice whereby all prisoners with families will have a pre-release meeting with their family and family contact officers to discuss any issues and to prepare both prisoner and family for release.

Most family contact officers felt that contact with families has been maintained throughout the sentence where a prisoner has a family and children and they wish contact to happen. As the release date approaches, some prisoners are moved to open prisons to allow more contact and prepare both prisoner and family for release in terms of re adjustment to family life. Pre-release conferences are held with all agencies involved. Participants felt that the integrated case management is the key to better outcomes for all and will aid agencies to work together more effectively.

Family contact officers, their managers and relevant statutory and voluntary sector organisations meet quarterly to update each other on practice, to share ideas and take forward initiatives.

Families Outside offers advice through their national helpline. Recent statistics show they deal with 2,000 calls or emails per year. This service is available five days per week to anyone (family and professionals) and can be about a person in prison or in the criminal justice system generally. They have a staff team of four people for all prisons and contact can be at any point in the proceedings. Advice can include information about visits and facilities and what to expect in the prison. Families Outside have links with other community agencies, drug agencies and child care agencies, although this work tends to be more generic in nature, for example awareness-raising, rather than one-to-one work with families.

Links with prisons

Families Outside has named staff to contact in the prison. They are not necessarily family contact officers as they have concerns that if this was the case there would be no cover for sickness and holidays, and this would impact upon the quick responses they currently receive.


There has been much research and evaluation of the Scottish system which suggests the family contact officer model is a good one.

The Scottish Prison Service carry out an annual prisoner survey to establish the impact of the service and this is enhanced through asking families and children about visiting facilities and what could make them better. Additionally, family contact officers meet with prisoners regularly to discuss what improvements could be made to visiting facilities and to what is needed to improve family contact visits.

Link: Scottish Prison Service, annual prisoner survey

Families Outside also seeks feedback from users of their service. This includes both families and professionals, although it is anecdotal at present.

Challenges and obstacles

There are several key challenges within the Scottish system:

Lessons for practice

This was not explicitly covered by the focus group.