After writing about the rules surrounding prisoner communications by post and by phone last month, I thought I should follow it up with an explanation of how prison visits work.
Visits are an area of great division for prisoners. Some hate them and refuse to have them. They just can’t stand having to watch their loved ones leave at the end. Other people find that hard but endure them for the sake of their family, who want to be able to see them. Then there are those who don’t particularly like the end of visits, but think it is worth it for the chance to spend some time with the people they care about and miss so much. Only a few people are completed unaffected by a visit after it has finished. These people enjoy them most of all. As for me, I fall into the third group. I find it massively frustrating that I can’t just walk out at the end and go home with my loved ones, but I would rather have that frustration than the feeling of total isolation and loneliness that accompanies a long period without any visits. The only problem arises when they ship you out to a prison hundreds of miles from everyone you know!
PSIs 15/2011 and 16/2011 compliment each other with regard to prison visits and contain everything from the practicalities of arranging a visit to the benefits of visits and the security measures surrounding them.
Some of the recognised benefits include encouraging the maintenance of family ties, assisted rehabilitation, helping prisoners to arrange accommodation and employment or training upon release, improved prisoner attitude and well being, maintenance of good order within the prison, and better staff/prisoner and staff/family relationships. In fact, the Ministry of Justice Resettlement Survey 2008 stated that offenders who receive family visits in prison can be up to 39% less likely to reoffend.
There are not many limits on who may visit a prisoner. For most prisoners, anyone may visit. They could be family, friends, officials, or complete strangers. However, there are a few restrictions. Category A (high risk) prisoners can only receive visits from approved people who have been vetted by the prison and the police in advance. It is important to note though, this is only for category A prisoners, not for all prisoners at category A prisons. For example, I am not subject to this procedure since I am a category B prisoner, albeit held within a category A establishment. Another restriction is applied to unconvicted prisoners who, ordinarily, can be visited even by witnesses in their case, but can occasionally have these visits refused if the court directs that such visits should be restricted or prohibited. Prisoners can receive visits from ex-offenders and former prisoners, but this is at the discretion of the governor. The visit should generally be allowed unless the ex-offender is not a positive and supportive influence on the prisoner. If the ex-offender is released on license the views of their supervising offender manager should be sought before making a decision.
The only remaining restriction applies to those who are subject to safeguarding children measures. Such prisoners will normally only be able to receive visits from their own children and siblings – and then only if such children are not at risk from the prisoner. Any visits to such offenders are closely supervised with staff ready to intervene if they believe the child is at risk in any way. The overriding factor in considering whether to allow a child to visit is whether contact with the prisoner is in that child’s best interests.
There are a number of support structures in place at many prisons, designed to help families with the visits experience. One such structure is the Assisted Prison Visits scheme which aims to give financial help to families visiting prisoners if they are on low income/benefits. Another source of help is the Family Support Worker. The role of this person varies from prison to prison, but here at HMP Wakefield the Family Support Worker is employed by POPS, a charity working with prisoners families in the north of England. She runs coffee mornings once a month before the visit starts, which are a good opportunity for frequent visitors to discuss their experiences and any problems they may have with staff and other visitors. The Family Support worker also organises the quarterly Family Days, which I will come on to later, and will take applications from prisoners and letters or phone calls from family members and consider any ways she can help with the visits experience upon request.
The visitors centre is an important source of help too. The provisions vary from one prison to another but the visitor’s centre is a place which should open a few hours before visiting time commences and which makes provision for the secure storage of personal possessions for the duration of the visit and for the anonymous disposal of illicit items (if anyone has had second thoughts about smuggling something in). The visitors centre is where visitors will first engage with staff and this is often a bone of contention. Whilst there are many staff who are polite and courteous and actually quite supportive of visitors, I have also heard many of reports from visitors saying that staff in visits or in the visitors centre treated them like they were criminals themselves, barking at them and generally being rude and unhelpful. That said, they aren’t all like that, and there is only a minimal amount of contact required with staff, so if you do run into a bad one, at least it doesn’t last too long.
Tomorrow I’ll focus on how many visits prisoners are entitled to, and how they are arranged.