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29 July 2020

PRT seeks assurances on the future of video calls and visits in prisons

The gradual resumption of face-to-face visits in some prisons earlier this month will have come as an immense relief for those able to see their loved ones. But as prisons begin their recovery and restrictions are eased at different speeds, it will take time before visits return to anywhere near the levels seen before the pandemic.

Currently video calls are available in 30 of the 120 prisons in England and Wales, and access is limited to one call of up to 30 minutes per month per person. Nevertheless, for those few who have had access, it will have been the first time they have seen the faces of their loved ones in three months or more.

Last month Prison Reform Trust director, Peter Dawson, wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice for his assurance that video calls will be a permanent addition to the ways in which family ties can be maintained, not just during the Covid-19 pandemic but thereafter, and that they will not be used as a substitute or alternative to either phone calls or face to face visits.

In his response, Robert Buckland refers to the emergency introduction of video calls during the pandemic, but says that a “longer-term solution” to deliver the recommendations of Lord Farmer’s review remains under consideration—“focussing on those who do not receive face-to-face visits under normal circumstances”.

Following the publication of the first report from our new Covid-19 CAPPTIVE project earlier this month, we have now received a further letter from the prisons minister Lucy Frazer. In it, she provides additional detail on the expansion of video calling facilities, along with a list of prisons which are currently working to introduce them.

However, what neither of these letters provide are reassurance that these will not become a substitute for face-to-face visits. Lord Farmer’s report on family ties spelt out the case for mainstreaming the provision of video calling technology in prisons. Two and a half years later—when the pandemic struck—that recommendation was still not implemented.

The prison service has now said it wants video calling to become a permanent feature. That’s welcome. But it needs to go faster, to give a guarantee that video calls will cost prisoners’ families the same as they cost the rest of us, and that they will always be an addition to face to face contact, not a substitute for it.

Following the response from Robert Buckland, we have written again to seek assurance. Click here to read a copy of our latest letter.