10 August 2017

Today the Ministry of Justice published the Farmer Review on The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners' Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime. The full report can be found here. INQUEST made a submission to the review which can be found here.

Many of our concerns are reflected in the report's section on how good communication to ensure supportive relationships can make a difference (page 81-83). Our submission draws on INQUEST’s long-standing evidence based research on deaths in custody. It includes direct quotations from families based on our casework and various Family Listening Events, which we held with families around other reviews such as the Harris Review into Self Inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds (see our submission and the final Harris Review report) in 2014 and the Equality and Human Rights Commission Review on preventing death in detention of adults with mental health conditions. It also includes recent jury conclusions highlighting issues relevant to this area.

Family contact was a key theme raised during the Harris review. It is an issue that families frequently raise with INQUEST in relation to our specialist work on deaths in prison. The recurring themes and concerns regarding family contact on which we will concentrate are as follows:

  • Lack of family involvement in supporting vulnerable prisoners.
  • Difficulties in families contacting prisons to raise their concerns about their relative with a prison.
  • Significant geographic distance between the family and the prisoner causing isolation and increased vulnerability.

In our evidence we have focused on the voices and experiences of families and included direct quotes from them. Behind the unacceptable numbers of prisoners who die in our prisons today there are countless families who loved and cared for their relatives and would have done everything they could to prevent their death. In theory NOMS guidance recognises the importance of engaging with families and this is reflected in the Safer Custody prison service instructions. However, our specialist casework with families shows that there is a clear disconnect between policy and practice. Prison policies have been exposed as woefully inadequate. Too often families are overlooked as a resource, information about their loved one’s mental wellbeing is not passed on to them and if families themselves try to pass on information there is no process in place to ensure this is flagged up with the relevant staff.

Our key recommendation to the Farmer review was on family support. Families are integral to supporting people in custody and can help to keep them safe from harm. They must be included, where appropriate, as a central component of the management and care of people in custody. We therefore welcome the following recommendations made by Lord Farmer (p.83):

"As part of their Performance Agreement each prison should establish a clear, auditable and responsive ‘gateway’ communication system for families and significant others: a dedicated phone line that is listened to and acted upon.

  • Families’ concerns about mental and physical health should be systematically recorded and action taken.
  • Families (and significant others) should be properly informed about and able to request the opening of an Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) document:
    - If after completion of a risk-based assessment an ACCT document is opened they should be kept appropriately updated of any intervention/action arising from this.
    - If after completion of a risk-based assessment it is decided not to open an ACCT document, then the family member or other person who raised the matter should be written to detailing the reason for the decision."

What is disappointing however is that it is not the first, and likely will not be the last time that many of these recommendations have been made. Many of them were made in 2014 by Lord Harris and subsequently rejected by government. For example the Harris review recommended that the prison service "should invest in new technology, such as in-cell telephony and video call facilities, (for example Skype)" (p.210) and "a dedicated telephone line for families/friends and others to pass on concerns about prisoners" ( p.132).

We welcome the Ministry of Justice response that they are developing a strategy which will take forward recommendations from the review, but wish to reiterate the concerns raised in our recent letter to the Times and in response to the latest MOJ stats which continue to show a prison system very much in crisis. The policy responses from the new Justice Secretary have been depressingly familiar, more prison places and more staff, as well as other vague assertions such as on governor freedom which fail to clarify how urgent recommendations will actually be taken forward.

We urge David Lidington and the government to take seriously the fact that the recommendations made by prison watchdogs, official investigations, inquests and reports like this one have been systematically and scandalously ignored. Until that is rectified, and robust systems of democratic accountability are put in place, the crisis will continue. More broadly the government must learn from the abject failures of the past and pursue a radical change of direction: invest in mental health and social services, tackle sentencing policy and promote alternatives to custody which will better protect everyone.