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Is prisoners’ contact with families & friends sufficient?

Prison Inspectors investigate prisoners' contact with families and friends and find that many prisons place additional barriers to maintaining relationships.

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Life in prison

The Prison Inspectorate’s findings papers inevitably make for an interesting read. The most recent (published 26 August 2016) explores prisoners’ contact with families and friends.

This paper summarises the literature concerning the importance of prisoners maintaining relationships with the outside world and, in particular, with their family and friends. It draws on evidence from recent inspections of adult prisons undertaken by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and survey data from inspection reports published between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2016.

There is a robust evidence base attesting to the face that prisoners who maintain contact with families and friends are less likely to reoffend. Indeed, a 2014 HMIP thematic report into resettlement cited family and friends as:

the most important ‘resettlement agency’ for prisoners on release.

[You might also be interested in another publication in the findings series from January 2016 which looks at the day to day reality of earning and spending money inside.]


HM Inspectorate of Prisons inspects against criteria known as Expectations which are underpinned by ‘indicators’, which set out what inspectors would normally expect to find if the expectation is met. Family contact is assessed under two healthy prison areas: respect and resettlement:


  • Prisoners can maintain contact with the outside world through regular and easy access to mail, telephones and other communications.


  • Prisoners and children in custody are encouraged to re-establish or maintain relationships with their children and families where it is appropriate.
  • Prisoners and children in custody can maintain access to the outside world through regular and easy access to visits. Prisoners are aware of the prison procedures and their visits entitlements.
  • Prisoners and children in custody and their visitors are able to attend visits in a clean, respectful and safe environment which meets their needs. Prior to arrival, visitors understand the prison routines and how to access available services.

Telephone calls

Most prisoners have to queue to use communal phones on wing landings; they have to pay for their calls with £1 generally equating to a 10 minute call to a landline or a 5 minute call to a mobile.

In their survey of prisoners, inspectors found that 26% of all prisoners (and 39% of those in local prisons) had problems accessing phones with several prisons not having sufficient telephones.

A growing number of prisons have telephones in cells and HMI Prisons encourages all establishments to install these where possible.

Foreign national prisoners (13% of those in this survey) are no longer able to use Skype to keep in touch with their families owing to security concerns.

prison phones


Prisoners can send and receive an unlimited amount of mail and can purchase stamps for the same price as in the community. However, in 2015–16 nearly half (44%) of all prisoners reported having problems with sending or receiving mail, often through delays in post being processed in the prison.

A growing number of prisons now operate the ‘email a prisoner’20 scheme, which allows family and friends in the community to email letters to prisoners for a small charge (30p for a 50 line message). The prison prints the email and delivers it to the prisoner at the next mail delivery. HMIP inspections of HMP Leicester (2016), HMP Dovegate (2015) and HMYOI Aylesbury (2015) found the scheme to be in place and working well.


Although the basic legal entitlement of two one-hour visits every four weeks (sentenced prisoners) and three one-hour visits per week (unconvicted prisoners) applies throughout the prison estate, the reality of getting a visit varies considerably from prison to prison.

In the HMIP survey, only 30% of prisoners reported that it was easy or very easy for family to visit them at their current prison and 16% said they did not receive visits. Although this may be for a range of reasons, a common barrier is the distance a prisoner is held from their home area and/or the remote location of the prison, as these quotes from prisoners reveal:

My family live a three hour drive from here, and neither drive. The train from London is the most expensive in the country so visits are difficult.

Now I’m not in my local prison I will not see my partner until I get out and this is killing me and others.

Inspectors also thought it was wrong that in several prisons, prisoners were required to wear bibs or sashes during family visits and noted that delays to visits were common with 2 pm visits often starting at 2:45 or 3 pm, meaning that almost half the visit was lost.


Inspectors concluded their report with eight recommendations:

  1. All prisons should have staff with a specific family support role and this should be overseen by a senior governor.
  2. The rollout of in-cell telephones to existing prisons should continue as resources permit and all new prisons should incorporate in-cell telephones.
  3. Prisoners should be allowed to receive incoming calls from their children or their carers on a risk-assessed basis.
  4. A pilot should be undertaken allowing risk-assessed and supervised prisoners to have family contact through social media and/or Skype. The findings should be evaluated and the results published.
  5. Restricted or limited family contact and/or support should not be used as a punishment for activities or behaviour unrelated to visits and/or family access.
  6. Prisons should consult with visitors regarding visiting arrangements in order to improve the visiting experience.
  7. Prisons should develop a strategy to help prisoners maintain and enhance their support networks.
  8. Administrative delays in admission to visits caused by prisons’ own procedures and processes should not impact upon the time length of the visits.

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3 Responses

  1. See

    £50 an hour to visit a Welsh woman in prison is not unusual. Two hundred plus mile journeys each way not unusual. Baroness Corston report was ignored. The Noms official interviewed by Parliamentary select committee explained “that the women did not want it”. The questioner asked when were prisoners ever asked about the Conditions they were held in. No answer because the women were never asked if they wanted small local prisons as per Corston report.

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