Speed up video calls rollout in prison to ease families’ lockdown anguish
The rollout of secure video calls in prisons should be speeded up to ease the distress of families and their loved ones unable to see each other since the cancellation of social visits, a new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust suggests.
Based on 278 contributions from families and prisoners in England and Wales, the briefing reveals a mounting sense of anger, frustration and despair over more than 3 months of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in prisons.
One family member said:
“The last time I saw my son was on the 20th of March, then lockdown happened. He has also not seen his Fiancée and his 2-year-old son since then. The distress and heartache this has caused us all is incalculable.”
At the start of the pandemic in late March, all social visits to prisons in England and Wales were halted. Since then, most prisoners have been confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. Governors were told last month by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) that they should consider relaxing restrictions from Monday 6 July, including the reintroduction of visits. However, all planned changes must be approved centrally, and ministers have made clear that the pace of change will be much slower than in the community. HMPs Risley and Humber were the first prisons to restart visits on 8 July, and more are scheduled in the coming days and weeks.
The briefing is the first of a series PRT is publishing as part of its CAPPTIVE project, exploring the experience of prisoners and their families during the pandemic. Focusing on the themes of families and communications, it reveals a gap between what was promised by the government to make up for the loss of social visits and what has so far delivered on the ground. It also highlights the dearth of information and communication technology, such as video calls, in prison compared to the community, and a lack of ambition to close this digital divide.
The briefing finds that ministers have heightened expectations amongst prisoners and their families, only to disappoint—adding to their distress and feelings of hopelessness. So far, more than 3 months into lockdown, video calls have been rolled out to just 27 of the 120 establishments on the prison estate in England and Wales (figure accurate as of Tuesday 14 July 2020).
One prisoner said:
“Naturally visits have stopped and we are unaware when they will begin. We were informed that video calling will be introduced, however as of yet that is still a no-go.”
One family member said:
“I used to take my toddler grandson to see his dad, my son, every weekend. We all look forward so much to this important family time. The prison has no video-call facility, I would be ecstatic seeing my son and grandson having a video-call, as not seeing each other’s faces for 11 weeks since Mother’s Day is hard.”
Whilst the weekly provision of an additional £5 of phone credit to all prisoners has been very welcome, Covid-19 has highlighted the pre-existing inadequacies in telephone facilities across the prison estate. A significant minority of prisons are still not equipped with in-cell phones, and in prisons without this facility, access can still be a significant problem.
One prisoner said:
“Family contact is difficult due to limited access to phones and only 4 phones for 160 people on a wing or 40 people per 45 mins association time.”
One family member said:
“With no in-cell phones if we miss his call, its 24 hours until we get the opportunity to speak to him again. Family bonds are being severed and this is very cruel and unhealthy for all.”
“His time on the telephone is rationed between us all before his credit runs out, therefore difficult to have deep meaningful conversations. We have an exchange of conversation squeezed into a short call but the need for my son to receive a mother’s counsel to support his mental wellbeing is constrained. My heart aches for him.”
The briefing also considers the effectiveness of arrangements prisons had in place for communicating with prisoners and families. Here, the picture is more positive overall. Genuine consultation with prisoners has been evident and had paid dividends. Use of social media to help families has been quite common and of high quality. There’s much for prisons to learn from each other about how the benefits of an open, outgoing approach outweigh any perceived risks.
Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust said:
“The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world for everyone. No-one is immune from the risk of infection or the anxiety that can cause. Prisoners are no exception. But being in prison does make a difference, as it does for the families prisoners have left behind.
“What this briefing shows is that families and their loved ones in prison have been experiencing a double lockdown. The distress of not being able to see each other in person has been compounded by a lack of access to modern communication technology, including video calls. It’s technology many can now take for granted in the community, and which has made a huge difference during lockdown – just not for families supporting someone in prison.
“In August 2017, 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.”
Through the generous support of the Prison Advice & Care Trust (Pact), we have been able to include the experiences of numerous families of prisoners within this briefing; adding to our understanding about the impact of suspension of prison visits on children, families and prisoners themselves.
Commenting, Andy Keen-Downs, CEO of Pact, said:
“Pact exists to empower people with lived experience of the justice system to have their voices heard on the things that matter most to them. So, we have been delighted to assist with enabling families to contribute to this important report. It brings to light the pain families and their loved ones have been experiencing in the pandemic, and the vital importance of putting in place measures to nurture and sustain those relationships under lockdown.”