Ideally, prison visits should occur in safe spaces where families can openly and authentically share. But prisons are intimidating places and security measures often limit communication and the family’s time together. National ministries have little control over physical prison infrastructure and whether prison officials value making visits more child friendly. But you can build relationships with prison officials and collaborate to make visits as safe and child friendly as possible.
Step 1: Build Goodwill
Invest in relationships with prison chaplains and other key prison officials, like social workers or psychologists, who have influence over family visitation policies and decisions.
- See things from prison officials’ perspective. Consider how prison visits might create order and safety problems during the visit and within the prison environment.
- Sensitize prison officials about impact of prison visits. Have conversations about the impact of prison visits on children. Ask about the impact that prison officials see within prisoners.
- Include prison officials when planning visits. When possible, include prison officials in your planning. Consider their ideas when planning individual visits or larger scale events that involve more families.
Key Practice: Invite prison officials to family days, informal prison visits, or other events so they can see prisoners who participate as parents and the impact visits can make on them.
Step 2: Plan the Visit
A tension exists between scale, or how many families to take on prison visits, and quality, or the depth of interaction during visits. Prison visits become more efficient when you group families in a single visit. But when more families come on a visit, it lessens the privacy and level of support each one receives.
- Determine the optimal number of families to invite on a prison visit. National ministries have limited human and financial resources to allocate toward prison visits. Ask four questions when determining how many children and caregivers to take per prison visit.
- How many families do you serve want to visit their loved one in prison? When you serve a large number of families, it becomes more efficient to group them together on a single visit.
- How hard is it to access the prison? When you need to travel long distances, logistics are difficult, or the prison limits the number of visit, more families may need to come per visit, assuming the prison permits larger groups during a single visit.
- What level of support does each family need? When safety risks are higher or the family’s needs are more complex, you will need more staff and volunteers to monitor and facilitate the visits.
- What level of privacy does each family need? Privacy creates space for deeper and more personal interactions. When family needs are more complex or personal, you will need greater structure and privacy, which makes larger visits less practical.
- Determine resources. Ultimately, you need to make decisions based on the resources you allocate for prison visits. Consider the following when determining the resources you need:
- Time. How much time is required to prepare the families and coordinate and facilitate the visits? For example, the travel time to and from the prison, the time it takes to go through security and visit length.
- Human resources. What staff/volunteer to family ratio is required per visit? Do staff or volunteers need special expertise to facilitate more complex or sensitive encounters?
- Financial resources. How much money does each visit cost? Costs might include transportation, food, lodging and support services, like counseling and childcare.
Key Practice: Partner with churches, businesses or other community groups to beautify prison waiting areas and supply books and toys for children. Build goodwill and collaborate with prison officials to improve facilities.
Step 3: Collaborate with Prison Officials
Child-friendly visits are safer and can make visits more fruitful. Generally, the extent prison environments are child-friendly is outside your control. But you can build goodwill and collaborate with prison officials to make them more child-friendly.
- Before the visit.
- Visit schedule. Keep in mind children’s school schedules when planning visits. Negotiate with prison officials for flexible visitation times, when necessary.
- Security procedures. As much as possible beforehand, support prison officials to pre-screen and gain approval for family members for visits. Negotiate age appropriate and minimally invasive security procedures specifically for children.
- Waiting areas. Negotiate for designated child-friendly spaces where families can wait. Gain permission to paint and decorate waiting areas and supply books and toys.
- Reduce wait time. Prior to the visit, discuss schedule and arrival times with prison officials. On the day of the visit, update them on arrival times to reduce the time families need to wait and protect children from unnecessary stress related to the prison environment.
Key Practice: Identify and liaise with one prison official to coordinate visit logistics and minimize wait times.
- During the visit.
- Contact visits. Negotiate for “contact visits” where family members and their loved ones in prison physically interact without barriers.
- Visit space. Organize visits in quiet, “non-institutional” spaces that are less intimidating, like the chapel, a private room with a comfortable atmosphere, or outside on prison grounds.
- Prison officials’ presence. When privacy is important, negotiate to have prison guards and officials maintain distance or leave the room during visits.
- Connect over activities. Schedule activities that break the ice and ease pressure to talk. Invite families to bring gifts or food to share with their loved ones in prison. Bring games families can play together.
- Support persons. When families want to have sensitive conversations or address harm, arrange for a trusted person who can provide children physical and emotional support during the visit. Support persons may need to be someone other than the caregiver, especially when the caregiver’s presence might block open and authentic conversations or make the visit less safe. In these cases, adults outside the family, like teachers, mentors, and PF staff or volunteers, are good options as support persons for children.
Key Practice: Understand prison regulations about bringing food and other materials into the prison. Make sure to inform prison officials about items that families plan to bring and activities they want to do. Provide children and caregivers information and advice about support persons. But let them decide whether they need a support person and who they want that person to be.
- When the visits end.
- Visit length. While longer visits allow for deeper interactions, visit length largely remains in prison officials’ control. Make sure to inform families, though, about how long they can expect the visit to last.
- Saying goodbye. Avoid letting visits end abruptly without families saying goodbye and planning future communications. During visits, monitor the time and notify families when visits are close to ending.
- Debrief. Speak with families and caregivers after the visit. Find out how they felt, what they appreciated, and what was missing or could be improved.
Key Practice: Consider planning large, one- day events, like “Family Days,” where you can bring more families and they can spend more time with their loved ones in prison. Have the parent in prison, child or both exchange letters to open later, after the visit ends, as a positive keepsake from the visit.
What resources are required?
- Staff and volunteer time.
- Costs associated to prepare for and plan the prison visit.
- Costs related to prison visit.
- Hired vehicles or the cost of using the NM’s vehicle for transport to/from prison; snacks, drinks, activities and in case of overnight stays, meals and lodging; childcare services.
How can I learn more?
- Reach out to other national ministries that can provide support.
- PF Czech Republic: Gabriela Kabátová, Executive Director; firstname.lastname@example.org
- PF Zambia: Teddy Mweeta, Executive Director; email@example.com
- PF Colombia: Lacides Hernandez, Board Chair; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Read other helpful resources.