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Howard League blog · 7 Oct 2022

“Stuck in a hole”: Fighting for family contact in the youth justice system

Earlier this year, a young person contacted the Howard League legal team for advice about getting a transfer to a prison closer to his home.

He had spent more than two years of his sentence without any face-to-face contact with his loved ones, and felt intensely the alienating and lonely effects of this separation during his already challenging circumstances. 

Our client recently spoke to us about how it felt to be placed in a prison so far from home that his family could not come to visit him.  

“I can’t really describe it,” he said. “Not seeing them for so long was horrible. I ended up feeling so alone. 

“I had so long to serve, and it felt never ending. It felt like being stuck in a hole. It made me feel angry and I didn’t feel like myself.” 

Incarceration and the prison environment already have an inherently damaging effect on people in custody. Everything from mental to physical health, loss of agency and the lack of purpose and productivity in prisons compounds to create acutely adverse outcomes. But, when stripped of freedom, a saving grace for many prisoners is the ability to uphold and sustain familial and community relationships even while incarcerated.

“I had so long to serve, and it felt never ending. It felt like being stuck in a hole. It made me feel angry and I didn’t feel like myself.”

Studies have shown that prisoners often depend heavily on families both during and after imprisonment for emotional, financial and resettlement support.

Moreover, those prisoners who can demonstrate community and family support are not only more likely to be released on parole and allowed to move to open prisons, but are more likely to integrate back into society with lower rates of recidivism.

And while COVID and the resulting proliferation of virtual correspondence has removed some barriers to keeping in touch with the outside world, it is still in-person meetings that have the most profound and meaningful impact for those in prison.

Unfortunately, the ability to maintain these ties to community is too often taken out of the hands of those in prison and their families. 

Our legal team is the only frontline national legal team specialising in the legal rights and entitlements of children and young people in custody.

We identify the problems and injustice faced by children and young people in the criminal justice system, and work to provide legal solutions for individuals, as well as wider policy changes to prevent the problems reoccurring for other young people.  

Back to our young client who was unable to see his family. He contacted us for help in March 2022, explaining that he had exhausted all options available to him, trying everything in his means to be granted a transfer closer to home.

Following our intervention, we achieved a breakthrough.

Over the course of our communication with him, we were also in touch with his mother, who described the difficulties she faced in not being able to see her son due to the distance, her own health needs, and her caring responsibilities.

Our client and his mother were told that the prison had been trying to arrange a move, but to no avail.

Our legal team was able to intervene by sending pre-action correspondence to the prison in question and the Secretary of State for Justice, who retains ultimate responsibility for decisions on inter-prison transfers. This was complemented by an escalation through a complaint to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.  

Following our intervention, we achieved a breakthrough. In August 2022, our client received confirmation that he had been accepted for a compassionate transfer to a prison close to his home.

He told us: “Now that I’m back closer to home I feel over the moon. My mum and little brother are coming to see me this weekend and it’s exciting. I feel a lot better in myself and can’t wait to see them. 

“It’s also made a big difference to my mum. She was not herself and now I can tell she’s a lot happier when I speak to her.” 

And this is not an isolated case. Other examples that our legal team have assisted with include two cases where young men were placed on contact restrictions with children. These restrictions meant that they were unable to have any contact – through phone, letter or in person – with their siblings for more than two years.

“Now that I’m back closer to home I feel over the moon. My mum and little brother are coming to see me this weekend and it’s exciting.”

In both cases, it took the legal team intervening to challenge the prison before restrictions were lifted. The prisons were later found to have unlawfully not reviewed the restrictions annually as required. 

To be incarcerated and at the mercy of the state means a loss of freedom and lack of autonomy, but loneliness and estrangement from community and loved ones should not be part of the sentence. In the destabilising and challenging environment that prisoners are faced with, connection with their families can be a lone reprieve. 

Studies have shown that connection to family not only eases the toll of custodial sentences, but has been proven to be a significant factor in aiding resettlement and preventing recidivism. In the cases of children and young people, being far from home has notable negative impacts on family ties and correspondingly on resettlement and desistance. 

For our client, being closer to home changed the nature of his sentence. But it should not take two years of feeling ‘stuck in a hole’ to grant this change. When young people are left in the care of the state, it is crucial that their needs and wellbeing are made a priority.

Andrea Coomber  


  • Barbara Melville says:

    I completely understand the relief of both the prisoner and Mum in this situation. Last week, I saw my son for the first time for 22 months. Due to the lockdown and the slowness of the prison process to allow visits we had not been able to arrange visits. We had the biggest hug! Now if only we could do something about the prisoners still been banged up for 22 hours a day, with no work, no support visits and deteriorating food. Thanks Howard League for your help.

  • I am a supporter of The Howard League, and I say, may God be thanked and praised for this client receiving the help he needed. May your work always flourish as long as such needs exist, by God’s grace.
    Margaret Elizabeth

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