Families Outside: Making it better for prisoners families

Life and Work's Jackie Macadam interviewedNancy Loucks, a church member and the chief executive of Families Outside a charity working with the families of prisoners. With permission from Life and Work, we reprint her story below.

Nancy Loucks
Nancy Loucks is chief executive of Families Outside, a charity supporting families of prisoners. Photo by Jackie Macadam.

“I’d have to say that what we don’t want to be are the only people doing this work.”

Nancy Loucks is speaking about her job as chief executive of Families Outside, a charity supporting families of prisoners.

“Everyone involved has a role – social workers, schools, the courts and the police service. We all really need to work together and ensure that when someone goes to jail for an offence, the punishment is not meted out to their children and partners as well.

“We don’t yet have a justice system that recognises that the needs of the family should be taken into account when sentencing someone for a criminal offence.

“Sometimes reports ordered by the courts don’t address the fact that a family might have children at all.

“For example in one case we worked with, the court reports didn’t take any account of the affect the imprisonment of a single parent might have on the three young children in the family.”

Nancy is a Californian who came to Britain to study prison policy at Cambridge University – “I planned on becoming a vet but discovered I was drawn to criminology” – where she met her husband Niall. They now live in Lanark with their two daughters, Savanna and Freya, and Nancy worships at Greyfriars Parish Church.

Her work with prisoners’ families began following research for the Prison Reform Trust into the impact of prison visitor centres.

“Visitor centres are places usually slightly outside the prison where family members can meet with volunteers and workers who can help them access advice, facilities, and generally allow them to relax (often with their children) either before or after they have visited their loved one.

“This can make an enormous difference to the families.”

Being CEO of Families Outside is very much in keeping with the Christian upbringing Nancy had in her native USA.

“My mother’s family was very evangelical, very conservative,” she says. “My father’s parents were missionaries in Africa but much more liberal.

“Before I started worshipping at Greyfriars, I ‘shopped around’ for a place to worship.

“I’m one of these people who really needs to feel that the minister is passionate about what they are saying. It took a long time for me to find a church that I enjoyed attending.

“It’s noticeable that we don’t talk about our faith as much in the UK as we do in America. Your faith and what you believe is considered much more private here. It’s a different culture.

“I've never consciously separated my Christianity from work aspirations. I've always felt that we are here to make things better for other people. We all need to find our own niche.”

Nancy’s niche, in raising awareness of the problems facing families with members who are incarcerated, is entirely in keeping though with both her beliefs and her principles.

“One of the most important things we can do,” she says, “is to get word of the services the centres offer out there – not just to the people who might want to use them, but to all the people, organisations and agencies that would be able to link in with us and with the visitor centres to offer a better service to families.

“We offer direct support and training to other organisations about what we do, why it’s important and how they can help.

“There needs to be a greater awareness all around of those left behind. At the moment it seems to be almost considered fair that they pay the price for their loved ones’ crimes.

“We've always maintained that parents in prison are still parents and that there are obvious benefits – not always, but in most cases - to maintaining prisoners’ family ties, both for the person in prison and for the wider family.

“Women in prison suffer particular problems when it comes to leaving children outside. Statistically, when a father goes to prison, the mother cares for the children in 95% of cases; but when a mother is imprisoned, only 5% (estimates vary slightly) of children stay in the family home.That’s a shocking figure.

“But there are changes happening. Prisons are trying to take parenting relationships into account.

“Some prisons in Scotland now run ‘homework clubs’, and all now offer extended ‘family days’ where visits can be more relaxed and go some way to creating quality time for the prisoner and their family.

“One initiative in the USA is Girl Scouts Behind Bars where meetings are held inside the prisons so that mothers of Girl Scouts can take part in the meetings along with their daughters. HMP Low Moss is now doing that here with Scouts and Guides.”

It’s a long way from California to Lanark, but Nancy finds that wherever you are in the world, imprisonment is a family experience.

“Parents in prison are still parents – but fulfilling that role through the physical and the emotional distances involved, can be exceptionally challenging.

“Families Outside has been operating the visitors centre at HMP Addiewell along with Sodexo since 2012, and we are able to offer the services we’d like to see everywhere else, with professional staff that can give information, support or help to families visiting the prison.

“It’s not a scary space for the children – it’s friendly and welcoming. There are play areas, refreshments, baby changing facilities and advice on a multitude of topics.

“It’s a good example of what can be done when we work together with authorities, and it’s one that would be great to see rolled out in at all prisons.

“No one is saying people who have committed a crime should not be punished, and be imprisoned as part of that punishment. But it’s important for society that we consider the impact of the sentence on the family as well. They didn’t do the crime, but they still seem to have to ‘do the time.’”