Prison visits involve human beings, who have bonds of love, kinship, friendship, sitting in the same physical space together...

For many years now there has been a call on Government to introduce video call technology into prisons, as part of a wider push to upgrade antiquated prison technology and infrastructure. This was given a huge boost by Lord Michael Farmer, whose ground-breaking reports made the same recommendations, which were officially accepted by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Even so, it took a global pandemic, and the shut down of prison social visits, for there to be serious action.

We now have video call technology in 95 prisons, with more in the pipeline. This is good news. We applaud. It isn’t a perfect set up. There are issues and challenges. But the fact of it happening at all should be welcomed by all who care about prisoner welfare, children’s rights, and reducing re-offending.

But, a note of caution. Recent comments from Ministers were interpreted by some as suggesting that video calls might be a substitute for visits. This suggested a possibility of a nightmare scenario we have seen in some US prisons, with private-sector companies making money from struggling families who are denied the basic human right to visit their loved one in person.

During prison lockdown, we all understand that video calls may have been, temporarily, the best communication channel available. And we know that some families have mobility and other issues, and for some, at times, visiting is too difficult. Video calls can also be crucial for people whose family are overseas. But fears have been stoked that there is an agenda to replace visits with video ‘visits’ - not helped by the branding of the company that has been taken on to deliver the service (‘Purple Visits’).

So it is with great relief that we read the clear reassurance from the Lord Chancellor that this will not happen: "it is absolutely not the intention" that video calls will substitute visits. This comes as a response to an enquiry by the Prison Reform Trust, who have shared the concerns expressed by prisoners’ families to Pact and other service delivery charities.

We need to learn the right lessons from lockdown. We welcome video calls: nearly all of us now use video calls, not least in much of our working life. But what we understand about this is that they are calls, with video. They are not visits. Lord Farmer has coined the phrase ‘the golden thread’ to describe the role of family and good human relationships in prison reform, rehabilitation, and reducing inter-generational offending. Video calls are a modern way of making a phone call. That’s all. We are delighted to see them in prisons, and our hope is that they become a free, or very cheap, alternative to making a phone call. We also hope that more investment in prison infrastructure will improve the quality of calls. But they are not visits. Prison visits involve human beings, who have bonds of love, kinship, friendship, sitting in the same physical space together – a visits room, an outdoor space, a chapel. Even with the short term necessity of social distancing or face coverings, visits are still golden, not purple.

Find out more

Published: 9th September 2020