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UK: the role of online visits in supporting family contact

Following discussion with families who currently have a loved one in prison, Prison Reform Trust associate Sarah Beresford reflects on the role that allowing greater use of virtual visits could play in helping people in prison and their loved ones through the Covid-19 pandemic, and beyond.

“Maybe this will help people sort of understand what it’s like for us.” Hayley (aged 9, not her real name) was taking part in this week’s MyTime support group for children and families in Merseyside with a family member in prison. A group of professionals, children, and carers had gathered in an online video conference, and we were wondering if the current Covid-19 restrictions might help the general population have some insight into what it feels like to be disconnected from close family members.

An estimated 300,000 children across the UK each year experience the imprisonment of a parent, most of whom face a huge sense of grief and loss. For those whose primary carer, usually a mother, is in prison, the challenges can be even greater and the separation all the harder. Given that prisoners who remain in contact with their families are up to six times less likely to reoffend, it is sobering that about 50% lose contact with their families during their time in custody. Keeping in contact in this present climate is harder than it has ever been.

When Dr Lorna Brookes, founder of the MyTime Project, asked the families what would make a difference right now, the answer was unequivocal: “We just want to see them to know they’re okay.” Face-to-face prison visits have not been possible in England and Wales since the end of March due to the Covid-19 virus. This is understandable, but the government’s own guidance on this policy makes no mention of the use of video technology for virtual visits, despite this being long called for by families, charities, and the government’s own advisors.

In his 2017 review, The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime, focused on men in prison, Lord Farmer recognised the importance of virtual visits and recommended that these be made available, particularly for those family members who “cannot visit frequently or at all due to infirmity, distance or other factors.” In his 2019 review of women in prison, Farmer went further and called for the entire women’s prison estate “to be prioritised for roll-out of virtual visits with all women routinely able to use facilities, where there are no security concerns, because of the disproportionately positive impact on children.”

Sadly, despite also being recommended by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as an important means of supplementing face-to-face visits for children of prisoners, the provision of virtual visits remains patchy at best. Where used routinely, they can be a very effective way of helping families maintain positive relationships with their family member in prison. HMP Parc has been running virtual visits for some years now, and these have proved highly successful, not just for regular family visits, but also in initiatives such as LAC (Looked After Child) reviews. This kind of provision improves children’s educational development and emotional wellbeing and also engages imprisoned parents meaningfully in their children’s lives.

Virtual visits should, of course, never be a replacement for face-to-face meetings, but they are an excellent way of supplementing visits, particularly when long distances make trips to prison difficult. This helps children to develop and maintain a meaningful and positive relationship with their imprisoned parent. In times where “other factors”, as mentioned by Lord Farmer, are at play, such as the current Covid-19 restrictions, they are crucial.

There are other ways for children and their imprisoned parents to keep in touch at this time, but again, provision is not consistent. In-cell telephony is helpful, though only around 60% of cells in England and Wales have this (and none in Scotland), and phone services in prison are not cheap. For many families, the cost of calling a prison becomes prohibitive, and it is hard to maintain contact. The organisation Email a Prisoner facilitates email contact which, for children, is an excellent way of communicating with a parent in prison as it is quick, efficient, and young people are far more likely to email than to write a letter by hand. There is a cost for this service, and in light of current events, the Scottish Prison Service has asked its prisons to suspend charges to help families at this time.

Of course, there must be monitors and checks when it comes to the use of technology in prisons, but a denial of these provisions is both short-sighted and counter-productive. Imprisonment is meant to punish the guilty, not the innocent. Children are often the hidden victims of our criminal justice system, serving their own silent sentence; they should not suffer the consequences of an offence they did not commit any more than anyone else.

With the routine use of video technology for court appearances embedded throughout the UK, the technological provision for virtual family visits is already largely in place. Furthermore, there are some glimmers of hope in this current climate of uncertainty and anxiety: alongside Food, Safety, and Hygiene, Family Contact has been identified as one of the four critical requirements within HMPPS’ Essential Regime and Service Delivery (ERSD) plan. In HMP Parc’s ERSD submission, Corin Morgan Armstrong, Head of Family Interventions, reports that, “we could upscale our current Skype delivery from just the Young Persons Unit to the wider prison,” and adds, “we could hit the ground running if they green light it.”

Given that the UK has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe, and in light of the changed world in which we are now living, there is no better time to ask questions about prison visits and reimagine our approach. In-cell telephones, email, and virtual visits can all help people in prison to remain connected to family, improving their chances of successfully re-engaging in society on release. When it comes to the roll-out of virtual visits that Lord Farmer has called for, the question we should be asking on behalf of children like Hayley, is “If not now, then when?”.

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