Yesterday I started to look at how visits are dealt with in prison. Today I’ll be continuing that look, focusing on how many visits different types of prisoner are entitled to receive, and how these can be arranged.
With regard to how many visits prisoners may have, this varies depending upon the prisoner. Unconvicted prisoners are entitled to receive at least three social visits, of a minimum of one hour each, and of which one may be on a weekend. Meanwhile, convicted prisoners are entitled to receive at least one visit every two weeks, of at least one hour each, including at least one weekend visit every four weeks.
In addition, many prisons offer longer visits or an increased number of them. This is often dependent on the prisoner’s IEP status. Basic level prisoners will get the absolute minimum whilst Enhanced level prisoners might get as many as eight visits in a month, each according to governor’s discretion and the local IEP Policy of the prison.
Convicted prisoners are also entitled to receive a reception visit in addition to their standard entitlement when they are first convicted.
If a prisoner is subject to cellular confinement for a disciplinary charge and their behaviour makes it impractical to remove them from confinement for a visit, the governor can order that the visit is deferred until the period of confinement is over or that it takes place in an area outside of the standard visits room. Here at Wakefield there are a few provisions for this. Other than the standard visits room there is also a high risk visits room, with increased security, a closed visits area, where the prisoners are separated by a glass screen, and one more area which is usually reserved for the highest risk prisoners. This area is located within the Close Supervision Centre, attached to the segregation unit and consists of two separate rooms with chairs on either side of a barred hole in the dividing wall. The funny thing is, this is designed for the highest levels of security and yet a friend of mine once had a visit in there and told me he would rather have all his visits there from then on if he could. He was being held in segregation pending investigation of allegations against him and his visit was booked before a risk fresh risk assessment had been completed. The governor ordered that his visit take place in the CSC room and he saw his partner only through the bars. However, there was no staff present in the room with them, only sitting outside with their back to the closed door, and he found that that gave the two of them more privacy than they had had for years. To my knowledge, he has never had another visit in there since.
Unconvicted prisoners do not have to send out visiting orders. Visitors can just phone up and book. However, convicted prisoners have to send visiting orders out with the details of their visitors filled in. This V.0. is usually valid for 28 days, though some prisons apply V.Os to a set month, so that if you send it out on the 21st of October, it must he used by the 31st of the same month. The V.0 is sent to the person listed as the ‘main visitor’ who can then call the prison booking line, quoting the reference number on the V.0. to book the visit. The bookings process is meant to be accessible and user friendly but I’ve never been at a prison where this is the case. There are occasions when you will get lucky and someone will pick up the phone on your first attempt, but more often than not my family have had to phone time and again before they can get through to someone to book the visit. On one occasion here at Wakefield my mother tried to phone every day for a week and, when it got close to the day she intended to come and see me, she telephoned 38 times in a single day without getting through. When she did eventually get through and asked what the problem had been the officer on the other end simply said “We’ve been doing other things.”
On another occasion back at HMP Frankland my brother had repeatedly tried to book but had been unable to get through. When he finally got to speak to someone they said that all of the visits spaces were booked up until the day after the V.0. was going to go out of date. I resent the V.0. and when he came up we saw a governor in the visits room. I called him straight over and explained that I’d lost out on a visit because of the delays in answering the booking line and asked if they could arrange that in future cases like this the officer doing the bookings could extend the V.0. expiry date for a few days to accommodate the visit. He said that sounded fine and he would put that in place but it happened again just a few months later and still the officer on the phone refused to extend the expiry date.
The time of day allocated for visits is meant to take into consideration such things as the needs of visitors, the prison regime, and the constraints of public transport. I have never encountered any particular problems with this but, in practice, it is the prison regime which usually dictates when visits can happen. In every prison I have been in myself visits have taken place at more or less the same time from 2 to 4pm, or thereabouts. However, I have heard of many prisons (mainly larger local prisons or private sector prisons) where there are two or even three sessions throughout the day.
The PSI puts a strong emphasis on the importance of visits starting at the advertised times, and visitors and prisoners being informed of any reason for delay. But in my experience the reality is quite different. Of the five prisons where I have had visits, only one has started and ended those visits at the advertised times, and I have never in my life been offered an explanation for these delays. I do know what the main cause of them is though. Most prisons I have been to advertise the start and end times for visits, but then use those as the time at which staff should start moving prisoners over to visits at the start or back to the wing at the end. As such, the time to process prisoners in and out cuts into the advertised visit time. This could be easily rectified if prison management were motivated to do so, but whenever I have pointed this problem out at any prison the reply I get is that we are only entitled to one hour, so if we get an hour and a half then it doesn’t matter that we didn’t get the advertised two hours. There is a certain logic to that, but it doesn’t actually address the fact that the PSI puts such emphasis on visits starting at the agreed and advertised start time.
Tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at how the visit is conducted.