Whatever Happened To Prison Visits


CEO blog

Whatever happened to prison visits?

As some readers will know, Pact is a charity which works with and for people affected by imprisonment. We are about family, community and healthy relationships, and that includes supporting people to have, and keep, good relationships with their loved ones during a prison sentence. We were one of the first charities, if not the first, to create prison Visitors’ Centres. We have even worked with funders to build our own. We were among the first to develop children’s play areas in Visits Halls and to hold Family Days and homework clubs in prisons. We pioneered ‘First Night in Custody’ services in the late 1990s at Holloway prison. And in 2008, we developed the very first prison-based family caseworkers, which today are known as Family Engagement Workers. More recently, we have had the privilege to act as pro-bono advisors to Lord Michael Farmer, whose work is beginning to transform the landscape of how prisons ‘do family’.

So, Pact has been passionate advocates of supporting prisoners’ family life for over 120 years. It has been a major part of my professional life for the past 15 years, and in the past, was connected to part of my personal life too. Many of us, myself included, have lived experience of the impact of a prison sentence on family life.

Given all of that, some people may be confused as to why we are not shouting from the rooftops at the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison Service to get on with restoring prison social visits. We know that for tens of thousands of prisoners, and their families, the lack of visits during the prison and social lockdown has been an horrendous experience. Many families contact us in great distress and concern. We know that it is having an impact on prisoners’ mental state. So why aren’t we using a megaphone to tell the prison service to get its skates on?

The answer is both simple and complicated.

Preventing a prison plague ship

In the weeks before and after prisons locked down, medical experts in how epidemics work warned of the prospect of several thousand deaths in prisons, including prisoners and people who work in prisons. There were warnings that, should the pandemic be unleashed in prisons at the same time as NHS intensive care beds face mounting pressures, our prisons would resemble plague ships, with skeleton crews of prison and healthcare staff setting up makeshift wards in which prisoners would be held with limited ventilation, PPE or other equipment to cope with the level of need. This was at the time, you will remember, we were seeing news bulletins from continental Europe of people dying in hospital corridors due to a lack of beds and ventilators.

And so in spite of having spent so many years of my life fighting for prisoners and their families, and developing services in response to their needs, I was grateful and relieved when HM Prison Service took the decision to go into lockdown.

I believe in the rights of children to see their imprisoned parents, and the right to family life. And I will continue to advocate for the full implementation of both of Lord Farmer’s excellent reports. But, sometimes, in exceptional situations such as the one we are living through, rights come into conflict with one another. The right to life, and the right to be safe at work, have been other considerations through this pandemic. HM Prison Service, for all its many flaws, has done a remarkable thing. There have been deaths in prisons, and every human death from this appalling disease is a tragedy. But thanks to the lockdown, the decision to stop visits, and the strategy to ‘compartmentalise’ and shield vulnerable prisoners, the evidence strongly suggests that the number of deaths so far has been a tiny fraction of what would have happened if regimes had been allowed to continue as usual. Hundreds if not thousands of lives have been saved.

Putting it crudely, having a good prison social visit requires the person in prison and their loved ones to be alive and well. It requires prison staff and charity staff to be alive and well to open the Visitors’ Centre, open the Visits Hall, and support and supervise the whole process. There has been a really hard price to pay for prisoners and their families during the prison lockdown. But the alternative would have been many people paying the ultimate price.

Hidden heroes

Pact is a fiercely independent ‘critical friend’ of HMPPS, and sometimes, we are very critical indeed. And there are too many cases of prisoners being badly failed by the system. But I feel the need to say something different right now, and it is this. Yes, there is an historical neglect by our political leaders, across the party political spectrum of our prison and probation services. And yes, there has been a failure to invest in the modernisation of our prisons, in alternatives to custody, and in resettlement and post-release support. And yes, all of this has made this lockdown so much harder for prisoners and their families. Nevertheless, whilst being critics of the long legacy of failure, I also want to thank Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Because at a human level, everyone in society owes prison staff and governors a debt of gratitude, not only for how they have managed to avoid massive loss of life in prisons, but also for how they have avoided prisons becoming the source of the virus in the wider community – the ‘epidemiological pump’ that was feared by so many experts.

It is all too easily forgotten that prison staff working through this crisis have had very limited opportunities to physically distance. That they have families. That many have been frightened to come to work, but have turned up nevertheless. That they have had the same challenges around testing and PPE but very little attention from the media.

We have lost some brave prison staff and there are staff in hospital right now. So whatever we might say about the system as a whole, or about the ‘bad apples’, I want to say very clearly that prison staff are ‘hidden heroes’. They scarcely get a mention in the list of vital key workers deserving our applause by Government Ministers. Now that the Thursday night clap has come to an end, we need to make sure their courage is not hidden or forgotten.

The road to recovery

I share the concerns about the mental health and potential trauma of lockdown on prisoners and their families. We’re working hard at Pact, along with many other organisations, to deliver creative solutions to ease the stress and reduce the risk of trauma of 23 hours a day, day after day, in a prison cell. For those who have not experienced it, who complain about the social lockdown, it is unimaginably difficult. But I also hear from prisoners who are incredibly appreciative of the kindness and support of governors and prison staff. I hear from some prisoners who are actually quite fearful of visits starting again, either for their families who will need to travel and mix with others, or for themselves and the prison community. Some prisoners speak of feeling safer inside than in society. And some families from BAME communities are of course feeling more anxious about travelling and visits given the unclear but worrying reports of the higher death rates of black people and people from some ethnic groups. The story of prison lockdown is not quite as simple and straightforward as we might think. It is important to hear the different voices of people in prison and families and listen to their concerns rather than impose our own views on what is best for them.

But of course, as social lockdown begins to ease, there is a growing expectation that visits and other aspects of prison life will somehow return to normal. There is frustration expressed online and in the media about the absence of a timetable. The saga of a Special Advisor thinking he is more special than the rest of us and roaming around the country hasn’t helped of course. Nor have scenes of people ignoring the rules and gathering on beaches and in parks to enjoy the sunshine. So, what’s to be done? How can prisoners and their families get back to spending time together in visits halls, along with all of the other activities such as education classes, rehabilitation programmes, gym, chapel, arts activities, association time, and all the things in prison life that not only make it bearable, but that reduce the risk of re-offending?

Some commentators and self-appointed experts have taken it upon themselves to announce that visits will start again in July. Others have announced with equal confidence that they will not happen again until next March. I’d like to quash the rumours. The truth is, there is no secret timetable. Nor should there be. Unfortunately, there are people in the media, and some ‘keyboard warriors’, who in the absence of real information will fill in the gaps with guesswork. This only serves to create more anxiety and stress for families and prisoners.

On Tuesday 2nd June, the Government published COVID 19: National Framework for Prison Regimes and Services. It is 15 pages long and can be found on the Ministry of Justice website. I have read it, as have colleagues, and in our view, it offers a very sensible and clear route map, laying out the conditions that will be necessary for prison regime restrictions to be eased. It is very light on detail, and there will be critics of this. It doesn’t tell us, for example, how visits could be managed in a socially distanced way, within the physical constraints of prison Vistors' Centres, search areas, and Visits Halls. It doesn’t cover the specific of what kind of face coverings, masks or other PPE will be necessary. But we are promised that all of that will be contained within a set of documents and plans which will come under the heading of ‘Exceptional Delivery Models’.

Pact, together with our ‘sister’ charities working to provide family services in prisons, is working at national level to do everything we can to support HM Prison Service to develop realistic and deliverable plans, which protect prisoners, families, our own staff and volunteers, prison staff we work alongside, and the wider public. If it were easy, we would have these plans all in place now, and would be announcing the re-opening of visits. It isn’t.

We have a lot more work to do. It is complicated and challenging work, and getting it wrong would be very dangerous. We are being careful with people’s lives, and we make no apology for that. And when visits do re-open, they will naturally have to be done quite differently, with variations from prison to prison as to how they are managed. But we want everyone to know that we are doing our very best to support the restoration of some form of social visits – to bring prisoners and their families together again – as soon as it is possible. This is a feeling and an effort shared between all of the charities who have a common agenda around supporting people who have been separated by prison walls, and by the officials we are working with.

Of course, one of the ways of bringing families together again is by releasing prisoners who want to go home, and whose families want them back. My hope is that HMPPS will look again at the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme, to make it simpler and more straightforward to deliver. This scheme has been a failure – or has in effect been designed to fail – releasing fewer than a 100 of the 4,000 potentially eligible prisoners. We should of course be reducing the prison population in a pandemic, rather than building more temporary prison places, especially as the courts are now beginning to sit again. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Prison Reform TrustThe Howard LeagueWomen in Prison, and over 100 other independent organisations on that point. For people who have served the vast majority of their sentence, who have a family home to return to safely, we should be supporting them and their family to make a fresh start together, and investing scarce public money and staff time in efforts to help them live crime-free lives, rather than building more prefabricated prison cells. There is minimal additional risk of releasing people one or two months before the end of their sentence if we do it in a managed way. And this could free up precious staff resources to focus on the careful and gradual restoration of regimes, and on being more imaginative and modern in how we do rehabilitation.

The new normal

For years now, many of us in the voluntary sector have called on the MoJ to get on with modernising the prison estate, and introducing the kind of technology on which we are all now increasingly reliant. And for years, HM Prisons have been talking about introducing or piloting or reviewing ‘virtual’ or ‘video' visits. It has been a painful process to observe, with multiple pilots starting and then being allowed to grind to a halt, with funding cuts and seemingly endless reasons for not doing anything. We understand of course that there are risks to video visits, but there are multiple systems to manage these, which in any case have been exaggerated. It has taken a global pandemic to spur the system into action. But here is some good news. We are now seeing the national roll out of free video visits for prisoners and their families. I am urging Jo Farrar and the Minister to push this roll out faster and to give it all the resources and impetus it needs. The opportunity to see and hear your loved ones via a screen can never be allowed to be a replacement for real encounters, and as we all know from our social lockdown, is nowhere near as good as the experience of a hug from someone you love. But right now, it’s the best we’ve got, and we should be getting on with it. And it should be a lasting legacy – a positive ‘new normal’ for prisons – that can come out of this terrible time.

My hope is that we will see video visits rolled out to all prisons soon, and that over the coming weeks and months, the ‘R’ rate, infection levels, and death rates from COVID-19 will allow HMPPS to gently and carefully move from lockdown to a restricted regime in which some form of adapted social visits can begin to happen, allowing Pact and other charities to get back to where we belong. And hopefully, if and when we are past that stage, and things get even better, we can hope to re-start our courses, and people can return to prison gyms and chapels. But we all know that there is a risk of a second wave. We have seen other countries ease lockdowns only to be thrown into reverse gear as the pandemic once again starts to spread. So, progress will have to be slow, and carefully managed.

We at Pact commit to doing all we can to help plan each stage of the process. And whilst we are planning for the future, we are speaking to prisoners and families every day, by any (legal) means necessary, to offer support. Like so many charities, we have pivoted services and got creative.

Everyone acknowledges that prisons can only be run with the co-operation of the people living in them. People in prison, and the people who work in prison, have shown remarkable courage, patience, resilience, good sense and kindness – qualities that we know may not be readily associated with the stereotypes. It’s only through working together with these qualities that we can get to the other side of this pandemic.

My hope is that there will be three good things that emerge out of the pain and difficulty of COVID-19 for the prison system:

  1. I hope we will see a lasting legacy of free video visits available for the majority of prisoners and their families, in addition to the real human contact that prisoners and their families miss so very much.
  2. I hope that the public will learn how HM Prison Service have, so far, averted a catastrophe
  3. I hope that people will pause before calling for ever longer prison sentences, and never again under-estimate what the loss of liberty does to human beings.