What do we mean by family?
The term ‘family’ should be interpreted broadly. The term ‘partner’ should include husband or wife as well as de facto and same sex partner Family should also include other significant persons in a detainee’s life such as grandparents, or a longstanding and close family friend.
Particular minority or indigenous groups may have a culturally specific concept of family that may have a heightened value to an individual as compared to the mainstream or dominant culture. For example, in some indigenous communities, family is central to community life and incarceration can have an acute impact on detainee and community alike. Detaining authorities can be sensitive to these issues, for example by permitting detainees to leave to attend funerals of extended family members.
In cases where a detainee does not have any family or does not wish to maintain contact, it may be appropriate for authorities to facilitate contact with volunteer visitors in order to maintain the detainee’s connection with the outside world.
Notification by authorities to detainees’ family
Family should always be notified within 24 hours about the fact of detention when a detainee first arrives, and every time a detainee is transferred. Family should be informed of any serious injury or illness to a detainee and in the case of death notification should occur within at least 24 hours.
Family visits as a right not a privilege
Family life is a fundamental human right. In the context of detention, this means that visits between detainees and their families should never be considered a privilege that can be taken away as a disciplinary measure. In exceptional circumstances – for example, an emergency or natural disaster – it may be necessary to postpone or cancel a family visit. However, any such restriction must be justified in the circumstances, and visits should resume at the earliest possible time. It is unacceptable to demand payment or other actions from detainees or their families in return for visits.
Authorities should generally seek to hold detainees at the most appropriate facility closest to where the detainee’s family is located. In some cases there may be competing considerations about placing prisoners in the closest facility on the one hand and the most appropriate facility for their classification on the other. This issue may commonly arise for women prisoners given the low number of purpose-built women’s facilities. Wherever possible, the preferences of the detainee should be taken into account in the decision. Detainees should never be placed far from their home for punitive or political reasons.
In cases where family of a detainee live far away, for example, visits could be accumulated and then used over consecutive days for example, or allowing substitution of face-to-face visit time for telephone time.
In prisons where systems of ‘self-governance’ or ‘shared governance’ with inmates operate, it is vital that families of detainees are not subject to actual or threatened violence or intimidation and are not asked to pay for obtain to family visits.
Modalities of visits
Visitors should be treated with respect and courtesy by staff from the moment they arrive to when they depart. It may be unavoidable that visitors have to wait before a visit can occur, but they should be provided appropriate waiting facilities protected from the weather. Visitors should be informed about what they are not allowed to bring into the prison to avoid unnecessary searching (see below).
Restrictions on who can visit a detainee should be lawful, and not arbitrary. Decisions by authorities to preclude detainee contact with a visitor on the grounds that person is of ‘ill-repute’ or a ‘security risk’ should be closely scrutinized.
There are contexts where detainees and visitors are physically separated by a barrier and/or a glass, but contact visits should be the norm. Any decision by authorities that visits are to occur on a non-contact basis should be justified on appropriate grounds (which may include security grounds, disciplinary grounds or as part of a segregation order). An order for non-contact visits should be regularly reviewed with a view to returning to contact visits at the earliest possible time. Detainees have the right to family visits of a sufficient duration to allow meaningful communication. Allowing one hour per week for family visits should be a minimal benchmark for authorities to be meeting.
Private family visits and intimate visits
Where possible, allowing extended private family visits is an excellent way to maintain relationships and prepare for reintegration upon release. In many countries, prisons include purpose-built facilities such as cottages or apartments that are separate from main prison population but within the perimeter fence provide facilities where detainees can have extended visits (for example, overnight or weekend) with their families in relative privacy. Detainees are still subject to security requirements (such as reporting to authorities) but enjoy time with family in a more normalized environment than prison visiting rooms.
Intimate visits between partners can be an important way for a detainee to maintain his or her connection with their partner whilst they are in prison. Intimate visits should be equally accessible to all detainees regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, and the process of granting visits should be free from corruption or favouritism. Where possible, a private room should be set aside for the purpose of intimate visits. Contraception and basic information on sexual and reproductive health should be provided.
Material conditions of visit
The material conditions of visits are important as they set the tone for the quality of interaction and connection a detainee is able to maintain with his or her family. Visit facilities that lack privacy, are unhygienic or too sterile, or raise security concerns for visitors may deter family from visiting thereby impacting the detainee’s ability to maintain family ties.
Authorities should make every effort to provide purpose-built visiting facilities, but if this is not available, visits should take place in locations other than where detainees are housed. Visiting facilities should be appropriately furnished and set up in a welcoming manner.
Some important features include:
Rooms large enough for families to sit down together within sight but out of hearing of prison staff.
Play areas for young children that are within sight of visit area.
Access to both male and female toilets, and to baby change facilities.
Body searching of visitors
Detaining authorities must ensure that prison is safe and secure. This involves proper control of weapons, drugs, objects that could be used for escape attempts and other contraband. Visitors will in many cases be searched before visits. Searching of visitors should be prescribed by law, must be necessary in the circumstances, carried out in the least intrusive way possible, and follow appropriate modalities. Overly zealous or intrusive searching of visitors is likely to discourage future visits, which can negatively impact detainee wellbeing prospects for reintegration. Invasive body searches on family members should be prohibited.
Ensuring visitors are informed of contraband items (for example, through posters or signs in visiting areas) is one way to improve security processes. Alternatives to physical searches, such as electronic scanning devices should be used where available.
Female and LGBTI visitors are often subjected to particularly intrusive and degrading search practices in many prisons around the world. One safeguard is to ensure female staff search females and asking transgender or intersex visitors whether they prefer to be searched by a male or female staff member. Children are also in a situation of vulnerability when being searched and they have the right to be accompanied during the search by the adult they are visiting the prison with.
Reinsertion of detainees into the community
Where possible, home leave can be an excellent way to maintain contact between a detainee and their family. Allowing detainees that are nearing the end of their sentence to have home leave, and additional family visits and phone calls are important tools to assist reinsertion. It allows detainees to further develop family relationships and connect with the community outside prison. A clearly defined policy should govern the allocation of such visits to avoid perceptions that it is granted arbitrarily.
Family visits for detainees in a situation of vulnerability
Women are often disadvantaged in the prison system compared with men, because their relative low numbers mean they are often detained in one of a very few women’s only prison far from their home. This means that they may not have many family visits, and so also miss out on support family can provide such as supplementing basic items like food, soap, sanitary pads etc. Detaining authorities should be attentive to this structural disadvantage and allow measures such as supplementary phone calls from family, or visits by community organizations that can help with basic needs. Women detainees are in many occasions the family breadwinner and also responsible for caring for children prior to incarceration. Detention can therefore be a very stressful and challenging time for the woman and her children. Visits from children are therefore very important for female detainees .
When it comes to maintaining contact with family, LGBTI detainees often face discrimination because laws and culture in many countries do not recognize same-sex relationships or marriage. This can result in LGBTI detainees being denied access to their partner for family and intimate visits. In some contexts, LGBTI detainees have been ostracized by family and friends due to their sexuality and do not receive any family visits at all, which can be very isolating for detainees and detrimental to their mental health, as well as reintegration into society upon release.
The disability itself may represent a barrier in the maintenance of regular family contact: for example, hearing problems may preclude the use of telephone, or detainees with mobility issues may face barriers to accessing visit rooms for example. Detaining authorities therefore must be mindful of these barriers and have a policy directed towards providing reasonable accommodation (which may mean additional time for visits or alternative options) for people with a disability. Detainees with a mental disability may not have strong family connections as in many cases are ostracized by their family or community prior to detention. A lack of family visits, and discrimination at the hands of other detainees or guards can make detention isolating and lonely for them.
Indigenous persons may feel isolated within the prison environment and may have to contend with discriminatory attitudes prevalent in the outside community. Family bonds are extremely important and incarceration can lead to shame for both the detainee and family and greatly strain these bonds. For the detainee this shame can result in self-harm attempts. In these circumstances, contact with family for minority and indigenous groups take on even more importance.
Detention in a foreign country can be particularly stressful and isolating for foreigners. They may not understand the language or legal system and have no family or other support networks within the country. Detaining authorities should make special consideration for non-citizens that do not have family close by – for example, allowing additional phone calls, allowing calls to take place to suit other time zones, and permitting extended visits when family are able to visit. Establishing contact between non-citizens and NGOs that work inside the prison can be helpful in reducing foreign detainees sense of isolation.
When it comes to contact between children in detention and their families, the best interest of the child should govern all key decisions around placement of the child. Because there is a requirement not to mix children detainees with adults, and because there are often few youth detention facilities in a country, young people may be detained far from their home and family. In most cases, maintaining this family contact is of vital importance to the health and wellbeing of the child, and to reinsertion of the child into their community upon release. Alternative means to maintain contact, such as supplementary phone calls or home visits or attending family events are measures that can help address these concerns. Girls and young women may face particular challenges in detention, as they may have had responsibility for siblings or their own children prior to detention, and this can cause significant stress and pressure. Many have also experienced sexual violence and are vulnerable to further abuse in detention. Authorities therefore should incorporate appropriate safeguards to minimize risk of further harm.
Particular efforts should be made to maintain contact between parents and their children where it is in the best interest of the child. In some cases, children may reside with parents inside prison but the environment must be appropriate. For parents separated from their children, the experience of a parent – and usually it is the mother performing the primary caregiver role – in detention without their child can be traumatic. Feelings of anxiety about the child’s welfare can cause particular stress and hardship for detainees. Detaining authorities should make visiting facilities as child-friendly as possible, and consider other ways to assist parents maintain regular contact, for example, allowing extended excursions for family outings and events. In some cases, however, it may be in the best interests of the child for contact between detained parents and their child to be prohibited.
Legal standards (15) Print
Convention on the Rights of the Child
States Parties shall ensure that : […]
(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances
United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules)
Prisoners shall be allowed, under necessary supervision, to communicate with their family and friends at regular intervals:
(a) By corresponding in writing and using, where available, telecommunication, electronic, digital and other means; and
(b) By receiving visits.
Where conjugal visits are allowed, this right shall be applied without discrimination, and women prisoners shall be able to exercise this right on an equal basis with men. Procedures shall be in place and premises shall be made available to ensure fair and equal access with due regard to safety and dignity.
1. Admission of visitors to the prison facility is contingent upon the visitor’s consent to being searched. The visitor may withdraw his or her consent at any time, in which case the prison administration may refuse access.
2. Search and entry procedures for visitors shall not be degrading and shall be governed by principles at least as protective as those outlined in rules 50 to 52. Body cavity searches should be avoided and should not be applied to children.
There should be in connection with every prison social workers charged with the duty of maintaining and improving all desirable relations of a prisoner with his or her family and with valuable social agencies. Steps should be taken to safeguard, to the maximum extent compatible with the law and the sentence, the rights relating to civil interests, social security rights and other social benefits of prisoners.
Special attention shall be paid to the maintenance and improvement of such relations between a prisoner and his or her family as are desirable in the best interests of both.
From the beginning of a prisoner’s sentence, consideration shall be given to his or her future after release and he or she shall be encouraged and provided assistance to maintain or establish such relations with persons or agencies outside the prison as may promote the prisoner’s rehabilitation and the best interests of his or her family.
Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment
A detained or imprisoned person shall have the right to be visited by and to correspond with, in particular, members of his family and shall be given adequate opportunity to communicate with the outside world, subject to reasonable conditions and restrictions as specified by law or lawful regulations.
United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules)
Women prisoners’ contact with their families, including their children, and their children’s guardians and legal representatives shall be encouraged and facilitated by all reasonable means. Where possible, measures shall be taken to counterbalance disadvantages faced by women detained in institutions located far from their homes.
Where conjugal visits are allowed, women prisoners shall be able to exercise this right on an equal basis with men.
Visits involving children shall take place in an environment that is conducive to a positive visiting experience, including with regard to staff attitudes, and shall allow open contact between mother and child. Visits involving extended contact with children should be encouraged, where possible.
United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty
Every means should be provided to ensure that juveniles have adequate communication with the outside world, which is an integral part of the right to fair and humane treatment and is essential to the preparation of juveniles for their return to society. Juveniles should be allowed to communicate with their families, friends and other persons or representatives of reputable outside organizations, to leave detention facilities for a visit to their home and family and to receive special permission to leave the detention facility for educational, vocational or other important reasons. Should the juvenile be serving a sentence, the time spent outside a detention facility should be counted as part of the period of sentence.
Every juvenile should have the right to receive regular and frequent visits, in principle once a week and not less than once a month, in circumstances that respect the need of the juvenile for privacy, contact and unrestricted communication with the family and the defence counsel.
Every juvenile should have the right to communicate in writing or by telephone at least twice a week with the person of his or her choice, unless legally restricted, and should be assisted as necessary in order effectively to enjoy this right. Every juvenile should have the right to receive correspondence.
Juveniles should have the opportunity to keep themselves informed regularly of the news by reading newspapers, periodicals and other publications, through access to radio and television programmes and motion pictures, and through the visits of the representatives of any lawful club or organization in which the juvenile is interested.
Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
e) Ensure that conjugal visits, where permitted, are granted on an equal basis to all prisoners and detainees, regardless of the gender of their partner.
International Convention on the Rights of Migrants and their families
5. During detention or imprisonment, migrant workers and members of their families shall enjoy the same rights as nationals to visits by members of their families.
7. Migrant workers and members of their families who are subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment in accordance with the law in force in the State of employment or in the State of transit shall enjoy the same rights as nationals of those States who are in the same situation.
Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, A/HRC/28/68, 5 March 2015
77. An important safeguard against torture and other forms of ill-treatment is the support given to children in detention to maintain contact with parents and family through telephone, electronic or other correspondence, and regular visits at all times. Children should be placed in a facility that is as close as possible to the place of residence of their family. Any exceptions to this requirement should be clearly described in the law and not be left to the discretion of the competent authorities. Moreover, children should be given permission to leave detention facilities for a visit to their home and family, and for educational, vocational or other important reasons. The child’s contact with the outside world is an integral part of the human right to humane treatment, and should never be denied as a disciplinary measure.
European prison rules
Prisoners shall be allowed to communicate as often as possible by letter, telephone or other forms of communication with their families, other persons and representatives of outside organisations and to receive visits from these persons.
Communication and visits may be subject to restrictions and monitoring necessary for the requirements of continuing criminal investigations, maintenance of good order, safety and security, prevention of criminal offences and protection of victims of crime, but such restrictions, including specific restrictions ordered by a judicial authority, shall nevertheless allow an acceptable minimum level of contact.
National law shall specify national and international bodies and officials with whom communication by prisoners shall not be restricted.
The arrangements for visits shall be such as to allow prisoners to maintain and develop family relationships in as normal a manner as possible.
Prison authorities shall assist prisoners in maintaining adequate contact with the outside world and provide them with the appropriate welfare support to do so.
Any information received of the death or serious illness of any near relative shall be promptly communicated to the prisoner.
Whenever circumstances allow, the prisoner should be authorised to leave prison either under escort or alone in order to visit a sick relative, attend a funeral or for other humanitarian reasons.
Prisoners shall be allowed to inform their families immediately of their imprisonment or transfer to another institution and of any serious illness or injury they may suffer.
Upon the admission of a prisoner to prison, the death or serious illness of, or serious injury to a prisoner, or the transfer of a prisoner to a hospital, the authorities shall, unless the prisoner has requested them not to do so, immediately inform the spouse or partner of the prisoner, or, if the prisoner is single, the nearest relative and any other person previously designated by the prisoner.
Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas
Principle XVIII: Contact with the outside world
Persons deprived of liberty shall have the right to receive and dispatch correspondence, subject to such limitations as are consistent with international law; and to maintain direct and personal contact through regular visits with members of their family, legal representatives, especially their parents, sons and daughters, and their respective partners.
They shall have the right to be informed about the news of the outside world through means of communication, or any other form of contact with the outside, in accordance with the law.
Robben Island Guidelines for the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in Africa
States schould : […]
31. Ensure that all persons deprived of their liberty have access to legal and medical services and assistance and have the right to be visited by and correspond with family members.
Guidelines on the Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody and Pre-Trial Detention in Africa
Detainees in police custody and pre-trial detention shall be provided with appropriate facilities to communicate with, and receive visits from, their families at regular intervals, subject to reasonable restrictions and supervision as are necessary in the interests of security. Such contact shall not be denied for more than a few days.
Extract from the 2nd General Report on the CPT's activities [CPT/Inf (92) 3]
It is also very important for prisoners to maintain reasonably good contact with the outside world. Above all, a prisoner must be given the means of safeguarding his relationships with his family and close friends. The guiding principle should be the promotion of contact with the outside world; any limitations upon such contact should be based exclusively on security concerns of an appreciable nature or resource considerations.
24th General Report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture
The active promotion of good contact with the outside world can be especially benefcial for juveniles deprived of their liberty, many of whom may have behavioural problems related to emotional deprivation or a lack of social skills. Every efort should be made to ensure that all juvenile inmates are aforded the possibility to have contact with their families and other persons from the moment they are admitted to the detention centre. The concept of family should be interpreted liberally, so as to include contacts with persons with whom the juvenile has established a relationship comparable to that of a family member, even if the relationship has not been formalised. For the purpose of their social integration, juveniles should as far as possible also be allowed regular periods of leave (either escorted or alone).
Juveniles should beneft from a vis iting entitlement of more than one hour every week, and they should also be able to receive visits at weekends. Short-term visits should be allowed, as a rule, under open conditions.
The CPT has observed in some countries that juveniles are authorised to beneft from long-term unsupervised visits. Except for cases when it is not in the juveniles best interests, such an approach is particularly welcome in order to foster he family life of the juvenile and his/her close relatives and the juveniles reintegration into society.
General Comment No. 1 (Article 30 Of The African Charter On The Rights And Welfare Of The Child) On: “Children Of Incarcerated And Imprisoned Parents And Primary Caregivers”
63. (…) Prison buildings and regimes are often remote and inaccessible for children visiting detained or imprisoned parents. This is a particular challenge for detained mothers since many countries have a limited number of facilities for female detainees. This can mean that children have to travel very long distances from their home to visit their mother which incurs financial costs and can also take up school time. If a decision is taken to imprison a parent or other primary caregiver then the relevant authorities should first establish where the child is living in order to have the parent or caregiver sent to a facility within suitable travelling distance of the child’s home. (…)
63. (…) consideration should be given to circumstances where the parent or caregiver is a foreign national who may require assistance in maintaining contact with children in their home country through telephone, email or written correspondence. Conversely, States Parties should provide assistance to the children of their nationals who are deprived of their liberty in another country, including when under death sentence, and to their national prisoners in other countries to enable the children to benefit from such assistance.
Questions for monitors (17) Print
What is the visits regime like (frequency of visits, length of visits)?
Is there the possibility for flexible application of the policy regulating family visits?
What are the grounds for restricting the rights of family visits?
Does the disciplinary regime contain any measures that restrict detainee’s access to family visits?
Are intimate / conjugal visits allowed? How often?
Are intimate/conjugal visits allowed without discrimination?
Are there measures in place to ensure that women prisoners are able to maintain contact with family located far away?
How are family members treated by detaining authorities when visiting?
What is the legal framework for searches of visitors? Are there clear rules regarding prohibited items? Are these rules visibly displayed?
How are searches conducted in practice on family members?
What are the consequences for visitors who refuse to undergo a body search? Is the physical environment provided for visits appropriate?
Does the physical environment afford some privacy? Are special needs (such as play areas for children) met?
In what conditions do relatives wait until accessing the space dedicated to visits?
Is there the possibility for alternative arrangements for detainees who never or rarely receive outside visits?
Does legislation and policy provide for housing prisoners as close as possible to their communities? How does it work in practice?
Does the prison have a policy or procedure relating to detainees preparing for release? Are there measures to improve linkages between detainee and family members in the lead up to release?
Does the prison have a policy around providing ‘reasonable accommodation’ during family visits for detainees with a physical or mental disability or when one of their parents have a physical or mental disability?