Prison Staff and Family Visits: United Kingdom Case Study

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 5-27-2020

Originally Published In

Science Publishing Group Journal of Humanities and Social Science

Volume Number


Issue Number


Page Numbers

63 - 72


Recent studies have illuminated how families are affected by prison staff engagement during prison visits. Prison staff, by virtue of their positions, exercise power and authority over families during prison visits processes and potentially play a vital role in shaping inmate-family experiences. Although some interactions with prison staff may be cordial, others have been reported as stressful for visitors, especially families with children. Yet many family visitors endure stressful encounters since visits can serve as portals for bonding between inmates and their families. Over the past two decades, some prisons in the United Kingdom (UK) have invested in developing family-oriented practices and visits protocol, where prison staff oversee the visits process. This is in contrast to prison staff who tend to take on a police-officer mentality whereby policing behaviors or personal philosophies are aligned with implied suspicion, mistrust, and apprehension towards inmates and families. Given such, prison staff interpretation of their roles and engagement with families is of research interest. The purpose of this qualitative multiple case study was to understand how UK prison staff interpreted their roles during family visits and determine why this evolution towards family-focus visiting took place. To answer the research inquiry, a heterogeneous sample of prison staff from private and public sector prisons and advocacy center contractors employed at two prisons in the United Kingdom were recruited to provide broad perspectives on staff roles during the process of the visit. Within these facilities, we interviewed a total of 13 (n=13) staff members. Data collection and semi-structured interviews occurred at two prison facilities and two advocacy centers. Three researchers conducted cross-case analyses and applied triangulation methods to establish a clear chain of evidence documented through step-by-step processes: audit trails; flexible and parallel data analysis during data collection, and first- and second-order coding processes. Findings from this study indicate that prison staff perceives their roles during the visiting processes as an evolution from traditional corrections-based punitive practices (i.e. policing) to a visiting program capable of accommodating three goals: low-stress family visits, inmate conformance, and reduced recidivism. This study adds to the literature on detailing how prison staff dichotomous roles were interpreted as balancing tensions between institutional controls and minimizing traumatic experiences for visiting families through prison-based interventions.