Prisoner Communications: Part One

Problems with prisoner communications, including telephone and letters, form some of the most frequent complaints in most prisons. With that in mind I thought I’d throw the spotlight on what the Prison Service Instruction says about how these issues should be handled, and how that measures up to reality.

PSI 49/2011 includes guidance on both written and telephone correspondence and sets out the requirements and the limitations for both.

With regards to written correspondence, the PSI specifies that prisoners should be encouraged to maintain contact with family, friends and professional bodies on the outside. There are a few restrictions though.

Firstly, prisoners may generally write as much as they want in a letter. However, some prisons including all high security prisons) read all letters before sending them out or allowing them in, whereas others only read a set percentage. In places where all letters are read the Governor can limit how much prisoners may write in each letter, to as little as four sides of A5 paper. From experience, I had never come across a single prison that enforced this limitation until I came here to Wakefield. It cache as a shock to me when I had a letter returned to me because it was five pages long instead of four. The ironic thing was that this rule is in place to save staff in the censors department time so that they can process a larger quantity of letters, yet the effect of enforcing it means that when I want to send out an eight page letter I simply split it between two separate envelopes. The effect of this is that that censors staff have just as much to read, but now they must actually do more work in logging two outgoing letters on my prisoner censors record instead of one. The policy in itself is entirely counter-productive.

The second limitation is on what may and may not be read by censors. There are two separate lists of people who prisoners may send or receive letters with without censors opening or reading the letter. First there is the “Rule 39″ list which includes a variety of exclusively legal bodies such an a prisoner’s solicitor. The second is the Confidential Access list which includes a few more legal bodies such as the Criminal Cases Review Commission as well as MPs, The Samaritans, The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, amongst others. However, the separation of these into two lists seems quite strange given that rule 39 letters and confidential access letters are both subject to exactly the same rules and regulations. For example, although staff may not read these letters under normal circumstances, they may be opened if the Governor has reasonable cause to believe that it contains an illicit enclosure or is not from a genuine body. Where the letter is opened, it must be opened in the presence of the prisoner. If there is no illicit enclosure and the letter is from a genuine body, it must be issued to the prisoner without being read. However, if the letter is not genuine it may be stopped and where it contains an illicit enclosure the enclosure must be removed and the letter processed as normal. In both cases, action may be taken. Confidential letters may only be read in exceptional circumstances where the governor has reasonable cause to believe that the contents endanger prison security or the safety of others or are of a criminal nature. The decision to read such a letter must be taken by the governor personally on a letter by letter basis. Any letter which, when read, is found to contain a threat to prison security or the security of others or matters of a criminal nature may be stopped.

But what happens when legal mail is opened wrongfully, without permission, in the prisoner’s absence by censors staff? There is nothing in the PSI about this, but I have had a lot of experience of this myself, as I believe most prisoners do at some point. Here at Wakefield censors staff stamp it saying “opened in error”, log it in a specific book, and send it to the wing senior officer to ask you to sign for receipt of it. The mere existence of these measures should indicate just how often this happens. Other prisons I have been at do not have the same measures but wrongful openings frequently occur nevertheless. At HMP Swinfen Hall it happened to me repeatedly without any explanation ever being offered and when I complained to a wing officer about it she actually tried to tell me that “Rule 39 no longer applies”. It was rubbish but Swinfen Hall also made it very difficult to get copies of PSIs (or PSOs as were more prevalent then), so it was near impossible for you to actually find out the correct procedures. At HMP Frankland it continued to happen to me, along with other problems such as my mail being mistakenly given to another prisoner. Eventually I got sick of it and twice took county court cases against them. In the first case they argued that it was human error and the judge dismissed the case saying that an apology was enough of a remedy. When it continued despite the apology I began the second case and this time the prison settled out of court and paid me compensation.

But that is just how prisoner’s letters should be handled by staff. Tomorrow I’ll focus on what what prisoners may actually send, and to who.

3 thoughts on “Prisoner Communications: Part One

  1. Very interesting account of today’s communication hurdles for Cons. In my day, if the Screws did not like you for some reason (in my case being a Socialist) they would play some really naughty tricks. For example, in Exeter, swapping letters between your partner and another woman you had contact with. Another favourite was to not send letters at all. I used to write to a Labour Councillor and when he didn’t reply, I would go into *Why have you forsaken me* mode. Obviously, the Councillor thought I had cracked up. Several times, my door opened at about 21.00 and the Screw would shout, *Get your gear together-you’re going down the Block*. I’d be sitting there with my bedroll when lights went out. I wonder if these jolly japes still occur.

    • Funnily enough, I know someone here who sent a valentines card to two different women, both of whom had children by him, neither of whom knew about each other, and census switched the cards so they both found out. Purely by accident of course. I am sure they would never do anything like that deliberately.
      Of course, whether accident or deliberate, it is unprofessional in any case. That said, he probably had it coming.
      And yes the other examples you gave happen all the time even now. A lad on my wing has been living out of bags for days having been promised a wing move last week, and another guy who recently got transferred has been living out of his bags for nearly three months as his transfer kept getting delayed.
      Don’t even get me started on missing letters! HMP Frankland already had to pay out for this and it seems like the prison service hasn’t yet learned its lesson.

      • Thanks for the excellent reply,very interesting. In Exeter, they treated me as a threat to good order because of my type of conviction. So, I convinced a Visiting Magistrate in the yard to solicit complaints, that if i was considered an *infectious disease*, I should be isolated in a single cell. To be honest, I spent most of my time reading and the gym. When I got to Liverpool, the Screws, generally left me to my own devices (or vices!) as they had years of experience dealing with authentic *hard men*. I was proud of the fact that several probation officers, from different offices, told me that they found it impossible which category (or bag) to put me in. I have since realised that this confusion can cause problems on meeting someone for the first time.
        You know, I imagine that Prison conditions are now harder although there have been apparent improvements. Having a toilet in the cell must cause problems.
        The other thing that intrigues me about modern penal conditions is the use of female officers. I suppose that is the accepted norm these days? In my day, guys would lurk under the stairs if there was a female Probation Officer on the Wing (this was before power dressing).

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