Families Outside is an organization in Scotland that provides support to children and families that have loved ones in the prison system. Laura van der Hoeven presented at the 10th annual International Prisoner’s Family Conference and provided insights on how prison visits are handled differently for families in Scotland and how Families Outside supports those children and families.
Listen to the interview here:
Transcript (minor edits for readability):
Julia: I’m with Laura van der Hoeven from Families Outside in Scotland. Laura I’m so glad you’re here. You have such an interesting job and so different from the way we do things here in the States. If you could start by telling us a little bit about what you do in Scotland.
Laura: Yes, I work for an organization called Families Outside and we support families affected by imprisonment in Scotland. We do that in a few different ways. We provide direct support to families. We run a national helpline, and we have family support workers who will work directly with families to get the support that they need around them. We also work with organizations to develop their capacity to support prisoners’ families. We deliver training to other professionals in the education system and the prison system so that they will recognize the needs of families who have someone in prison and be better able to support them.
Laura: As part of that role in building the capacity of other organizations, I coordinate services called prison visitor centers and they’re all run by independent voluntary sector organizations. They base their services at the prison so that when a family member arrives at the prison, their immediate needs are met so they can get a cup of tea, coffee. They have somewhere to go to the bathroom. They have somewhere where they can relax and spend some time and just be contained. Also those services are connecting families with advice, information, support for the different needs that they might have.
Laura: And then those services voice the needs of families visiting the prison to the prison that they work alongside so that the prison is more aware of what families need and the things which are important to them, whether that’s timing of visits, availability of children’s visits, food available in the visit hall, so that those things are on the prison’s agenda.
Julia: One of the things that you showed us was what the visiting rooms look like. I mean, they were beautiful. Can you describe it? It’s so different from the States.
Laura: The first thing to say is that we have 15 prisons in Scotland and not all of the visiting rooms look the same. I was showing a picture at this conference of HMP Grampian, which is our most recently built prison. Because it was built recently, it’s been built with a recognition of what families need and what makes for a good visit. So it has a children’s play area. It has natural light, cafeteria-style seating. It has artwork on the walls. It has very much been designed to not look like a really institutional, cold environment. It’s been designed to be a place that’s facilitative of positive family contact.
Laura: But we do, of course, have older prisons that are probably due to be upgraded and they don’t all look as nice as Grampian. But definitely there’s a policy recognition of what makes for a good visit and that the environment is part of that.
Julia: Well, that’s a step in the right direction. It’s something that really stayed with me after you gave your presentation. There’s so many things. I mean, when you said, “They can come in and have a cup of tea or coffee,” it’s just so nice. It’s such a different environment. When I say we, I spoke to a lot of people here that appreciated what you shared with us and to see the difference in what things can be, especially because you work for the government, right?
Laura: Yes. My post is funded by the government to coordinate a government project. I’m employed by an independent charity, so I work for Families Outside, and we have a very strong partnership with the Scottish government. There’s definitely a strong recognition both from the Scottish government and the Scottish prison service that supporting prisoners’ families is really important. It’s important because we know that if families are supporting their loved one in prison, then that person is much more likely to live a positive life when they get out of prison and they’re less likely to reoffend. They’re more likely to live as citizens.
Laura: But it’s also important, I think what we know in Scotland and there’s a real focus on this now, that prisoners’ children are very vulnerable children. Having a parent in prison is recognized as an adverse childhood experience which can, if they are not supported appropriately, result in quite poor outcomes later in life. I think what we are recognizing in Scotland is that it’s not just that the family member is part of the support network around the person in prison, the person in prison, particularly if they are a parent, is a really important part of the support network around a child who’s potentially very vulnerable, and they can be a really positive person in that child’s life.
Laura: They can, even though they’re in prison, they can be part of their education. They can support them emotionally, or if family contact breaks, they can be a more negative impact. So we want it to be a positive one.
Julia: That makes a lot of sense. That’s really important, because we don’t want the children following in a parent’s footsteps of crime or whatever the case may be. I don’t think we spoke about this. If you’re comfortable, could you share how you got involved with this?
Laura: I don’t personally have a family member in prison. The way I got involved with this was I was working for an MP in London and I was quite young. I was just a year out of university. I wanted to get involved in the political system. On a Friday, MPs, they don’t work in Parliament. They work in the constituency. So I was working there through a church. The church had suggested that I go and visit the Catholic chaplain in Brixton Prison to find out about some of the work the church was doing inside prison. That was a real eye-opener for me because I used to live very near to Brixton Prison when I was a student.
Laura: It had never occurred to me that there were thousands of people locked up in my city. It had never crossed my mind. So when I went in there and I saw the prison, and it was quite, in some ways a very sobering environment. I thought the work the chaplain was doing was fantastic, so I wanted to get involved. I become a volunteer supporting men being released from prison, sort of through the gate mentoring as part of a group. We would meet up with men who were due to be released before they got out, and then we would meet them at the gate. Then we would support them through those critical first few months.
Laura: It was really from there that I got involved in this kind of work. I managed to get a paid job doing this. But I think that the thing is, especially when I became a parent, this work took on a new meaning for me because you can try to protect your children, but you’re never going to be able to protect your children completely from the community and the society that they live in. You have to build the community and the society that you want them to live in.
Julia: You couldn’t have said it better. That is so awesome. I know that you’re helping a lot of people and you’re making big changes there. You’re part of the change in Scotland and I think that’s great, especially coming here and sharing it with us. I wanted to get your thoughts on the conference. You’ve been here for three days. What struck you as the high points and the people that you’ve met or things that you would like to see next time?
Laura: I was really excited to come to a conference where it’s really people who have that direct experience of having a family member in prison setting the agenda, coming together and talking about the issues which are affecting them. I think that’s something that we can struggle with in Scotland, to make sure that our agenda is always being led by the people who are directly affected and not by what we think people might need or benefit from. So I thought that that was very inspiring. I’ve met so many inspiring people over the last few days.
Laura: I know that in lots of ways America has challenges that we don’t have in Scotland, especially around mass incarceration and some of the issues that go with the economic setup of that. But there’s definitely work going on here which I think would be really valuable to bring home. I heard for the first time about the concept of the hospitality house offering free accommodation to families who might be on low incomes traveling really long distances for prison visits. In Scotland, we have families living in very remote communities in the Highlands and Islands. If they have to travel to the mainland, that’s a huge trip for them. So there’s definitely a need for something like that in Scotland.
Laura: Some of the relationship work, the couples’ education work going on in prisons is also hugely valuable and very inspiring. I would like to see more of that back home as well.
Julia: Well, it sounds like there was a really good sharing. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and what information about Families Outside. I’d love to stay in touch and make it to one of your conferences, if that ever worked out.
Julia: We’ll keep the conversation going.
Visit Families Outside for more information.