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Prisoner families’ lockdown anguish

PRT calls for the rollout of secure video calls in prison to be speeded up to ease the distress of families and their loved ones.

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First CAPPTIVE briefing

Today (16 July 2020), the Prison Reform Trust has published the first briefing from its new CAPPTIVE initiative. The Covid-19 Action Prisons Project: Tracking Innovation, Valuing Experience (CAPPTIVE) builds on PRT’s Prisoner Policy Network (PPN). CAPPTIVE aims to listen to prisoners, their families, prison staff, and others to build a picture of how prisons are responding to the pandemic.

Like the PPN, CAPPTIVE is based on the insight that prisoners are experts in the experience of serving a sentence.  That expertise is a vital component of making any change for the better. Right now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when every aspect of prison life has been affected, it is vital that prisoners are heard. PRT is committed to involving prisoners in capturing the experiences of living under these conditions and to explore what we can learn from the “double lockdown” in prison.

In early June, PRT launched CAPPTIVE with an appeal in Inside Time and Converse – prison newspapers – and National Prison Radio. The organisation asked people to share how the prison was managing under Covid-19. In addition to serving prisoners, PRT gathered information from families, prison staff, the Independent Monitoring Boards, voluntary sector agencies, and social media. The organisation drew on the Short Scrutiny Visits (SSVs) by HM Prisons Inspectorate. Pact and New Leaf CIC provided evidence from families and children, for which we are very grateful. Further insights were gained from the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ recent report on the impact on children with a mother in prison.

PRT is preparing a series of briefings, which will provide timely updates on the experience of living in prison under Covid-19 restrictions. The themes are:

  • Families
  • Communications
  • Regimes
  • Progression
  • Health, and
  • Innovation

This first briefing focuses on the first two themes – families and communications.

The briefing

Based on 278 contributions from families and prisoners in England and Wales, the briefing reveals a mounting sense of anger, frustration and despair over more than 3 months of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in prisons. One family member said:

“The last time I saw my son was on the 20th of March, then lockdown happened. He has also not seen his Fiancée and his 2-year-old son since then. The distress and heartache this has caused us all is incalculable.”

At the start of the pandemic in late March, all social visits to prisons in England and Wales were halted. Since then, most prisoners have been confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. Governors were told last month by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) that they should consider relaxing restrictions from Monday 6 July, including the reintroduction of visits. However, all planned changes must be approved centrally, and ministers have made clear that the pace of change will be much slower than in the community. HMPs Risley and Humber were the first prisons to restart visits on 8 July, and more are scheduled in the coming days and weeks (you can see official MoJ information on every prison here).

The briefing reveals a gap between what was promised by the government to make up for the loss of social visits and what it has so far delivered on the ground. It also highlights the dearth of information and communication technology, such as video calls, in prison compared to the community, and a lack of ambition to close this digital divide.

The briefing finds that ministers have heightened expectations amongst prisoners and their families, only to disappoint – adding to their distress and feelings of hopelessness. So far, more than 3 months into lockdown, video calls have been rolled out to just 27 of the 120 establishments on the prison estate in England and Wales (figure accurate as of Tuesday 14 July 2020).

© Erika Flowers

The views of prisoners and their families

One family member said:


“I used to take my toddler grandson to see his dad, my son, every weekend. We all look forward so much to this important family time. The prison has no video-call facility, I would be ecstatic seeing my son and grandson having a video-call, as not seeing each other’s faces for 11 weeks since Mother’s Day is hard.”


Whilst the weekly provision of an additional £5 of phone credit to all prisoners has been very welcome, Covid-19 has highlighted the pre-existing inadequacies in telephone facilities across the prison estate. A significant minority of prisons are still not equipped with in-cell phones, and in prisons without this facility, access can still be a significant problem. One prisoner said:


“Family contact is difficult due to limited access to phones and only 4 phones for 160 people on a wing or 40 people per 45 mins association time.”


One family member commented:


“With no in-cell phones if we miss his call, its 24 hours until we get the opportunity to speak to him again. Family bonds are being severed and this is very cruel and unhealthy for all.”


Another said:


“His time on the telephone is rationed between us all before his credit runs out, therefore difficult to have deep meaningful conversations. We have an exchange of conversation squeezed into a short call but the need for my son to receive a mother’s counsel to support his mental wellbeing is constrained. My heart aches for him.”


The briefing also considers the effectiveness of arrangements prisons had in place for communicating with prisoners and families. Here, the picture is more positive overall. Genuine consultation with prisoners has been evident and had paid dividends. Use of social media to help families has been quite common and of high quality. There’s much for prisons to learn from each other about how the benefits of an open, outgoing approach outweigh any perceived risks.


Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust said:


“The Covid19 pandemic has changed the world for everyone. No-one is immune from the risk of infection or the anxiety that can cause. Prisoners are no exception. But being in prison does make a difference, as it does for the families prisoners have left behind.
What this briefing shows is that families and their loved ones in prison have been experiencing a double lockdown. The distress of not being able to see each other in person has been compounded by a lack of access to modern communication technology, including video calls. It’s technology many can now take for granted in the community, and which has made a huge difference during lockdown – just not for families supporting someone in prison.
In August 2017, Lord Farmer’s report on family ties spelt out the case for mainstreaming the provision of video calling technology in prisons. Two and a half years later, when the pandemic struck that recommendation was still not implemented. The prison service has now said it wants video calling to become a permanent feature. That’s welcome. But it needs to go faster, to give a guarantee that video calls will cost prisoners’ families the same as they cost the rest of us, and that they will always be an addition to face to face contact, not a substitute for it.”



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