As almost everyone knows, prisoners’ contact with families and friends is critical both for surviving the pains of confinement and for trying to go straight on release. Improving family contact and ensuring it takes place at every prison in England and Wales were the recommendations of the recent Farmer Review and was reiterated in the last week by Prison’s Minister Sam Gyimah in an article for Conservative Home.
Visits are infrequent, and can often be over very long distances. Prisoners and their families write letters, but communication is slow as letters go through the prison security system. Most people like to keep in touch (as in life on the outside) by phone — the main reason that almost 9,000 illegal mobile phones were found in our prisons last year.
A recent innovative project, Prison Voicemail, has developed a voicemail service for use by prisoners and their families to try to improve prisoner-family communication and the University of Lincoln recently (August 2017) published an evaluation of the service (commissioned by Prison Voicemail).
What is prison voicemail?
Piloted at HMP Lincoln in 2015 as a telephone voicemail service, Prison Voicemail is now operational in 100 of the 121 prison establishments currently operational across England and Wales. The service allows prisoners and their families or friends to exchange voicemails to and from prison. Each prisoner and their family/friends are assigned a unique landline number which is attached to a specific mobile number.
The person in prison can listen to the voicemails from their family/friends and reply should they wish. Family and friends are able to purchase a package of minutes to leave voicemails for people in prison on a ‘pay as you go’ or monthly subscription basis and the cost to the
person in prison is the same as calling a UK landline.
Messages can be left anytime and are immediately available on the receiving end so they can be retrieved at any time. Messages can be sent and retrieved by family and friends from mobiles and landlines in the UK and abroad. The service was developed by Phonehub IO Ltd in collaboration with HMPPS (previously NOMS) to ensure that it complies with Prison Service Orders relating to security and public protection.
The service requires no additional phone lines within prisons and the administration by prisons is minimal with most of the work undertaken by Prison Voicemail staff. Prison Voicemail can be set up online or over the phone and in 2017 Prison Voicemail launched a mobile phone app version for family and friends.
You can see how Prison Voicemail works in this YouTube video:
Lauren Mumby and Professor Todd Hogue, the report’s authors, succeeded in getting 81 prisoners and 77 family members to respond to an anonymous survey and undertook detailed telephone interviews with 18 family members.
They received universally positive feedback on the system with prisoners and their family members having very similar views. The availability of the Prison Voicemail system was seen by prisoners and families alike as having a positive effect on; health and wellbeing, relationships and social ties and the solving of practical problems. Prisoners also reported that it helped them to manage their behaviour in prison and that they thought it might also help them reduce offending on release.
Although a relatively small evaluation, it’s no surprise that the findings are so positive.
Beyond the statistics, it is the human impact of the ability to keep in touch with loved ones which reveals the real impact. Here are some quotes from the report:
Its particularly useful if I’m gonna be out because if he can’t get hold of me then he panics. I leave a message and he knows I’m fine, I’m just not at home.
I’m at the mercy of when he can get to the telephone before we started using and if I was going to hospital and if there was other important information I needed to get to him, I just couldn’t do that before . . . it’s another way of keeping on contact with him and letting him know what’s going on because we’re away from each other.
Our little one, she got a mention in the school assembly because she got a merit or something like that. I could let him know what she’d done and what award she’d got so when we phone up on an evening, he can speak to her straight away . . . he would say this
little blackbird told me that you had a really good day at school today.
Just like to say thank you, my wife really enjoys the service and she often captures my youngest (5-month old girl) first words which is simply amazing.
The voicemail system introduces a little novelty and excitement into our day as it means both parties can receive the surprise of someone reaching out to them.
Since we found out about the service, we have used it constantly. It has been absolutely brilliant for myself and wife to keep in contact everyday between our main phone calls and visits. Thank you, it has made my sentence a lot easier to deal with.
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