Family visits


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.

Parents detained

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.