Prisoner Communications: Part Three

Over the last two days I’ve examined the rules regarding prisoners sending and letters. Today I’ll be focusing on prisoner phone calls.

When it comes to telephone calls, prisoners are given a designated PIN number which they may use to call pre-registered numbers on the prison PIN phones. However, prisoners are entitled to make a phone call within 24 hours of their first reception into prison and this may be before a PIN is allocated and numbers registered. In this case prisoners are allowed to use a generic PIN number at the public expense for a short call.

Prisoners are allowed to register 20 social numbers and 15 legal numbers on their PIN account. Prisoners can add and remove numbers by application. All legal numbers should be checked as genuine and the prison may determine what proportion of social numbers should he checked. If the governor believes a prisoner does not need to personally contact a certain number they may ask the prisoner to produce verification such as a letter from the recipient saying they are willing to receive calls. In practice, this all means that when a prisoner applies to register a number they must fill out the form with certain details about the recipient so that an officer may call that person and ask if they are willing for the prisoner to contact them. If this is confirmed the number will be added to the prisoner’s PIN for them to call.

Prisoners can also obtain additional accounts order to register extra legal numbers if they are conducting legal proceedings of any kind or extra personal numbers if they are a foreign national and need to call overseas. Such foreign national prisoners are also permitted a free five minute call to their family abroad if they have not had a visit in the preceding month.

Most prisoners are limited to a maximum PIN credit of £50 in on their PIN at any one time, bought from their spends account. However, Foreign Nationals and anyone involved in legal proceedings can purchase extra credit from their private cash account (which prisoners are not usually permitted to spend from). One area of particular contention here at Wakefield is that the PSI states that telephone calls by high and exceptional risk category A prisoners must be conducted in English unless they do not speak or understand English, in which case the call must be interpreted from a recording within 48 hours. The reason this has become an area of contention is that some prisoners who are not high or exceptional risk category A prisoners but actually far lower risk category B prisoners have been told that they are not permitted to make calls in their own language at all because the cost of translation is too high. Personally, I think the official rules set out in the PSI are discriminatory and open to legal challenge themselves and since the local rules here at Wakefield fall some way short of the national policy, it is a matter of time before a claim is brought on this basis. The only reason this place has got away with it for so long already is because legal aid is unavailable for such claims and the victims of this policy do not speak enough English conduct the case themselves.

As well as enabling numbers for prisoners to call, staff can also bar numbers either for individual prisoners or for all PIN numbers. There are a number of other numbers which have been enabled for all PINs automatically as well. These include all courts, The Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, and various other helpful organisations. The printed list of these numbers actually comes to ten full pages long.

Other types of call which can be made include Inter-Prison telephone calls where close relatives in different prisons can contact one another at a pre-arranged time. This is done by one prisoner making a call from a PIN phone to an official phone at the other end where the prisoner will be waiting. Incoming calls are usually not possible but they are permitted on official phones in the case of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In exceptional circumstances prisoners may also make urgent phone calls at the public expense. This is at the discretion of prison staff and is fairly rare but I have twice been permitted such calls. The first time was when the London bombings happened in 2007. I had family living in London and I had no PIN credit and no opportunity to buy any for another full week. Wing staff allowed me to call my mother to check everyone was ok. The second time was when the prison received a call to say that my little brother was in intensive care and it looked like he wasn’t going to make it. The governor had said I could have an escorted visit to see my brother in hospital or I could attend the funeral if the worst happened, but not both. The chaplain allowed me to call my father to discuss what would be best. In the end I visited my brother in hospital and, thank God, he was sitting up and smiling again by the time I got there.

The final aspect of prisoner telephone calls is monitoring. All calls to personal numbers are recorded and a percentage of calls are actively monitored at a rate determined by each individual establishment. On the other hand, calls to legal numbers should not be monitored or recorded at all.

I have known many solicitors to refuse to discuss the detail of cases on the telephone because staff are often listening in. In the past couple of years this has been exposed quite widely. Calls to solicitors, MPs, and even the Samaritans have been monitored and when the Prisons Inspectorate questioned this they were given a variety of excuses including that some staff were not even aware that they were not allowed to do this.

I think that speaks for itself but the conclusion that I would draw about prisoner communications generally is much the same as the regulations surrounding any particular issue in prisons. The PSI gives pretty clear guidance which theoretically provides for a fair and workable system. It’s just a shame that guidance isn’t always followed in practice.

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