Prime Minister Atlee, presiding over many a gathering in the room bearing his name in the House of Lords, must raise an eyebrow at some of the discussions it hosts in the twenty first century. Possibly not on his agenda was the visiting of by ‘wrong-doers’ - folk held at Her Majesty's pleasure in their place of incarceration.
A few days ago, the WI, in partnership with Action for Prisoners' Families, hosted the launch of the report of The Women's Institute Visiting Prisons; a publication of accounts written by WI members who volunteered to visit inmates at prisons across England and Wales. Many people receive no visits or very few visits during their time in prison and this can be due to many factors including distance from the prison to family homes, cost of journeys, restrictions that surround visits, and lack of co-ordination between prison authorities and the families to name but a few. In some prisons, inadequate or poor provision for children of all ages when taken to visit a parent can be a barrier to frequent visits, and some visits, although planned, may never come about. Accounts have also been written by WI members who were unable to make their planned journeys because of insurmountable travel difficulties, non-response from the person requesting the visit and prisoners being moved to different jails at a moment’s notice. One visit was halted as the visitor was in transit because the prisoner was being transferred to another prison there and then.
All of these journeys were undertaken, or not, to highlight the problems, difficulties, frustrations and stresses put upon a prisonler's family in their desire and endeavours to play a major part in the offender's rehabilitation. None of the WI visitors had previously met the people they were visiting and some were subsequently unable to visit unless they gave their age and address. All were apprehensive but all were pleased to have taken part in this project.
My round trip of 320 miles took ten minutes short of nine hours, cost around £121 and was achieved using buses, trains and boats. I have become a seasoned traveller in recent years but even so, this trip, which had to be undertaken in one day to avoid spending more money on accommodation, was no holiday jaunt. I was blessed with sunny weather, but in the dark and cold of mid winter it might have been a different matter. The family of the man I visited live even further away than I do, so their journey would include an additional 226 miles.
It is important to remember throughout this project that at the beginning and end of every visit, including those that did not come to pass, is a person. None of the prisoners taking part had received a visitor for a long time, if at all, during their sentence; they not not projects, but human beings whom society entrusts to the criminal justice system to correct and rehabilitate in order that they may play an active and responsible role in society. Surely society should practice what it preaches; that this is such a huge job should not deter from the mechanisms that will one day make the system a good one – one that works.