On the front page of today’s Sun, the headline screams ‘Monstrous – Huntley & other sickos allowed to mix with jail visit children.’ The story is that because of ‘ludicrous equality rules’ – which ‘jail chiefs have bowed to’, Ian Huntley and paedophiles in the jail are being allowed to ‘mix’ with children who are visiting their family members in the prison.

As a charity that has worked for 120 years in prisons to facilitate and support children visiting their loved ones behind bars, and speaking on my own behalf as someone who has visited prisons across the UK countless times over the years - I feel it is important to clarify some of the points made in The Sun’s front page article today. 

In prison visits halls, or visits areas, prison governors and their teams ensure that prisoners are seated at all times. The tables are numbered. Officers supervise the room which is under surveillance. Prisoners are not permitted to wander around and ‘mix’ with families who are visiting or with children, other than the children visiting themselves. Prisoners and their visitors are assigned a table, and prisoners are not permitted to leave the table until the end of the visit. Family members can use the tea bar/café facility or vending machine, and if there is a play area, children can make use of this. But prisoners must remain seated at these normal ‘social’ visits.  

The Sun’s headline and story implies that prisoners such as Huntley are having direct contact with children, which I think is what most readers will understand by the use of the word ‘mixing’, and of course, any reader would be outraged at this as it might pose a risk to vulnerable children. 

But I’ve been to HMP Frankland, and spoken to people who work there, and the idea that this kind of ‘mixing’ is going on is simply not factually correct.

In some prisons, prisoners convicted of sexual offences have visits on different days to other prisoners. However, in many prisons, prisoners who are convicted of a sexual offence are seated at one set of tables in the visits hall, and other prisoners and their families are seated at the other end of the hall.

This reason for this, is it allows the officers surveilling the room to keep a careful observation of what is happening.

In a high security ‘Dispersal’ prison such as HMP Frankland, which holds men convicted of serious offences serving long sentences including life sentences, and ‘high risk’ remand prisoners, it is always possible that visitors will see high profile prisoners who have been convicted for crimes which are of a deeply shocking nature. They may even be seated at a table not too far away. Visits Halls are not huge places. However, prisoners who have been convicted of serious crimes against children are carefully risk managed and observed to ensure that they do not have inappropriate contact.

Other prisoners who may have committed serious crimes but who are not considered a risk to children are of course allowed to maintain contact with their children, and most sensible people would agree that this is a good thing. After all, prisoners who maintain family contact are 39% less likely to re-offend. So it’s in the public interest to keep families together – subject to appropriate safeguarding and risk assessment.

For those who are unfamiliar with a prison visit setting or how it all works, just to give the whole picture - the only prison visits where a bit of ‘mixing’ may be permitted are family days, such as child-centred visits, and on parenting and relationship education programmes such as those run by Pact, SafeGround and NEPACS. However, access to these types of visits, is strictly risk managed by HM Prison Service and the partner charities. And even in these, family groups will generally stay together, and prisoners contact with other prisoners’ children would be absolutely minimal. At HMP Frankland, prisoners who have been convicted of a sexual offence would not be permitted access to these types of visits.

The Sun also states in its article that some prison governors have been forced to mix paedophile prisoners with children in response to ‘equality rules.’ To the very best of my knowledge, this sits somewhere between a misunderstanding of a stray remark that may or may not have been made by an employee of HMPPS, and a complete fabrication. Only The Sun can shed light on this. I have not seen any such rule and I don’t believe there to be one. Perhaps The Sun would care to share the evidence for their assertion with its readers? If this were true, I would be among the first to challenge this practice. Safeguarding children has to always be our paramount concern.

You may wonder why I am bothering to write this piece. Well, it’s because stories like this can do untold damage.

Today’s Sun’s headline and story reminds me of a story that they ran in 2008. The Sun ran some old pictures of a group of women in HMP Holloway dressed in Halloween outfits, encouraging its readers to be outraged. I must say, I think it was possibly not the most tasteful or sensitive fancy dress event that ever took place in a prison. But in a knee-jerk reaction, Jack Straw, the then Justice Secretary, banned all ‘parties’ in prisons. A number of governors interpreted this much too broadly, and a wide range of positive rehabilitative activities including arts, education and family events ceased overnight. It took a sensible intervention from Michael Spurr to reset the balance, but much excellent work, which had a proven profoundly positive impact on rehabilitation, had been undone.

The other reason I write this is that the last thing we want to happen is for prisoners who love their children, and who may have committed crimes but who are nonetheless safe parents, to be denied access, because family members are put off from visiting by scare stories.

And so it’s important that headlines and news stories such as today’s piece in The Sun are contextualised. Unless I am very much mistaken, and can be corrected by The Sun, prisons don’t have an equality rule which forces them to allow people convicted of the most serious offences possible against children to ‘mix’ with the children of other prisoners.

It wasn’t exactly a slow news day today. The Prime Minister resigned. So one can only wonder why The Sun felt that this ‘story’ merited its front page…