Women spending more than half their income supporting someone in prison

29 March 2023

New research released today [29 March] finds the burden of care and costs associated with supporting someone in prison in Scotland falls disproportionately on women, with many spending half their income or more in costs relating to their family member’s imprisonment. The families of people held in prison overwhelmingly live on very low incomes. The research found the impact of additional costs and loss of income means that families are often pushed into extreme food and fuel poverty. To keep families together and maintain contact, costs can include travel, staying in touch, postage, and paying money into personal accounts.

The research, published by Families Outside and supported by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, also found the combined stigma of poverty and having a family member in prison experienced by women was leading them to cover up their situations: for example, dismissing drastic weight loss as being on a diet, or attributing it to anxiety rather than financial hardship. These households experience a loss of income resulting from their family member’s imprisonment, and the research found an urgent need for better identification of financially vulnerable families so they can access the support they need.

The research also found:

Many children and women were unable to take part in any social activities during the imprisonment term of family members in Scotland.
•  Remand was an especially costly and stressful time for families. Families spent an average of £300 per month providing support to the person in custody – around half their average monthly income. There are unacceptably high levels of remand in Scotland compared to other countries – with Scottish families paying the price unnecessarily.
•  Household income often decreases, the level of Universal Credit may change, and housing may become unstable if the tenancy or housing benefit was linked to the person now in prison.
Families spent on average £180 a month (a third of the disposable monthly family income) and a day and a half per week of their time supporting relatives serving a sentence in prison.
On release from prison, the costs are shouldered by families. Claims for benefits can and should be set up before the person leaves prison, but this was not taking place in practice.
Keeping in touch via visits and phone calls – so essential to maintaining family relationships – is very expensive for supporting partners. Regular contact, where appropriate, can be hugely beneficial towards supporting the health and wellbeing of all involved, and can help reduce reoffending, with a person being six times less likely to reoffend if regular contact is maintained. The very high cost of travel and transport, distance to the prison, subsistence, accommodation, childcare, and time off work all factor into a family’s ability to remain in contact. Calls from mobile phones and video calls were introduced during the pandemic at no cost to families but may not remain so.

Lynn supports her partner who is serving a prison sentence. Speaking on the main costs that impact her, she commented that postage charges to send in clothes are “extortionate”, and that these fees vary from prison to prison. “It should be one rule for all. You’re sending in clothes and they’re keeping them at security and saying there are things on them [illegal substances], and then they’re getting destroyed. It’s horrendous. It takes time to save up to buy stuff. It’s not right.”

Families Outside, working with the families of those in prison, developed a number of recommendations for the Scottish Government, Scottish Prison Service and others:

The Scottish Prison Service and contracted establishments need to seek out ways to reduce unnecessary costs associated with imprisonment for families.
Families need improved access to benefits, travel costs, and systems of travel support for prison visits.
The Scottish Prison Service and contracted establishments, alongside the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service, should empower people in prison to support and reduce expenditure for their families.
All relevant organisations should focus on providing information about finance at key points when a family member goes to prison.

The financial impacts are far from the only issues families face when someone goes to prison, but the correct support can make a huge difference to a situation that is already difficult. When asked what she would like to see change, Lynn highlighted the need for costs to be cut for postage, and for better support to be put in place for when a person is released from prison: “Some people come out and have no family. They’ve got no life skills. A lot of prisoners have been in there for years and years, and they come out to a world they’ve never known.”

Families Outside hopes that the findings from this research will help key stakeholders such as the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service recognise and address the financial burdens placed on vulnerable families. Families who are innocent but are in effect being punished for acts they did not commit; their only ‘crime’ being a desire to support a loved one.

Prof Nancy Loucks, CEO of Families Outside, said: “Imprisonment creates enormous difficulties for the families left behind; financial impact is just one of these, but a key one. Even before the cost-of-living crisis, these families were making significant sacrifices of their own physical and emotional wellbeing just to get by, simply because of their circumstances. We can and must do more to prevent this.”

Vivienne Jackson, Programme Manager at abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, said: “Punishing people who have offended by sending them to prison is having the knock-on effect of punishing their family members by drastically increasing financial hardship. Single parent families are the most likely group in society to experience poverty; every time a father goes to prison a single parent family is created with the burden falling to women. It cannot be fair that so many women are automatically pushed into poverty, alongside their children, when their partners go to prison.”

Read the report