More people than ever before are in prison in the UK. Yet the number of family members and friends visiting prisoners has dropped by a third in five years. The Home Office is worried, but no-one is quite sure why it has happened.
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine
The prison visit, a key scene for so many dramas and films, is for many prisoners a crucial link to their families and to the outside world.
And yet the numbers of such visits by family members and friends seems to be in freefall. While theories abound as to why this should be, there is no single accepted reason.
Beth has been visiting her partner Alan in various Category A prisons for the past three years. The fall in visitor numbers is no mystery to her - she blames the way the authorities treat prisoners' families, and believes the situation has reached crisis point.
"They see prisoners and their families as the enemy," she says.
Her view, rejected by officials, is just one of the reasons put forward for the falling numbers.
Another possible reason is that inmates are being sent to jails further from home. With the prison population in England and Wales at an all-time high, inmates are often sent wherever there is a spare cell.
It has also become harder to get visits because the telephone booking system is under stress, families say.
In short-staffed prisons, the booking line is often the first thing to go, according to Action for Prisoners' Families (APF), meaning it can take hours, days even, for families to get through.
The problem was acknowledged in January by then prisons minister Hilary Benn, but campaigners say efforts to address it have been too slow. Little is also being done to move prisoners closer to home, according to the APF, which says 20% of prisoners' families face a five hour or more round trip.
A Home Office spokesman said: "We are seeking to improve booking facilities by upgrading IT and telephones. An electronic booking system is currently being piloted in four prisons, with a view to making it more widely available."
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Some prisons were also allowing families to book future visits while they are on the premises, he added.
Another major deterrent to visitors is increased security - introduced by the Home Office to try to stop drugs getting into prison.
Visitors are subjected to a more thorough search, including inspection by a sniffer dog. Anyone suspected of carrying drugs is strip searched. Physical contact between inmates and visitors is kept to a minimum and each visitor has a CCTV camera trained on them throughout.
Beth says it is right that something is done to clamp down on drugs, but she argues that the atmosphere it has created is damaging the rehabilitation of prisoners.
"They are clamping down on visits to such an extent that they are affecting relationships in a major way," she says.
If relationships breaks down, Beth argues, prisoners are more likely to return to a life of crime on their release.
"We want to help our partners by continuing to have a relationship with them, to lead more productive lives, to lead crime and drug free lives."
"That in itself is a security issue."
The Home Office is concerned about the drop in visitors, and has commissioned research from Action for Prisoner's Families and the Prison Reform Trust to try to find out exactly what has caused it.
Officials are still weighing up the findings, which were based on surveys of prisoners in two jails. The Home Office also says it is studying "examples of best practice" from prisons around the country, with a view to launching a co-ordinated effort to boost the "quality as well as the quantity" of visits.
Maintaining family contact was last year identified by the government's social exclusion unit as one of the key factors in preventing prisoners from re-offending. Prison reform charities, however, says the system seems to go out of its way to obstruct family relations at every turn.
The APF says families are rarely involved in preparations for release, and there are few dedicated family centres, where prisoners can enjoy quality time with their children.
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APF director Lucy Gampbell is critical of the way family members are treated. She says: "If you treat families like the next lot of prisoners coming in, and you treat the kids like scum, then it is no wonder they will stop visiting."
She says more visitor centres and specially-trained staff for visits are also needed.
She is reluctant to make a direct link between the decline in visits and an increase in the number of prison suicides, which reached a record 105 last year, as no research has been done in this area.
But she believes women prisoners, in particular, are prone to self-harm if they are deprived of contact with their children.
In a Home Office-funded survey of women prisoners at Cookham Wood jail, 95% said family contact was "very important" to them. But 20% of the women said they had received no family visit, and a third of women with children said their children did not visit.
Inconvenient visiting times were the most common reason.
In a similar survey at men's prison Camphill, 81% said family contact was important. Most men (71%) were fathers, but of those only 55% were visited by their children.
The problem was particularly acute for non-white prisoners - 90% said it was difficult for family to keep in touch, compared to 76% of white men.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, argues it is a question of priorities.
"Contact with family or friends matters more than anything else to most prisoners, not only increasing their chance of successful resettlement on release but also enabling people to deal with the loneliness and misery of imprisonment.
"For far too long helping prisoners to maintain their links with family has been a disappointingly low priority for the Prison Service."
Names of prisoners and their families have been changed to protect their identity.