In the last couple of days I’ve been breaking down some of the rules relating to prison visits. Today I’ll be focusing on how the visit is run.
When it comes to the procedures for the visit itself, the general procedure is that visitors should arrive a little early (some even come hours before the visit is due to start) and book in at the visitors centre. I.D is required, and the types of I.D accepted tends to vary from one prison to another but this should not be the case. One of my family members still uses a paper driving license and refuses to apply for a new one on the basis that the one they have is entirely legal and, if they get a new one, they will have to pay for the privilege of renewing it every few years. The paper one is fine and costs nothing. Some prisons are fine with that and accept this without a fuss. Others do not. The PSI lists some examples of suitable identification which would be enough to permit visitors entry to the prison, and a driving licence is one of them. It does not specify that it must not be a paper licence. It is true the PSI grants staff the discretion to accept other forms of I.D in addition to those, but it does not grant the discretion to refuse entry to anyone producing I.D which is listed, as many staff have tried to with my family member. If it weren’t for this family’s stubbornness (I guess it’s genetic) I honestly think I would have missed out on at a few visits. The only reason that hasn’t happened is because they insist on seeing the governor every time their I.D is raised as an issue.
Shortly before the start of the visit, visitors are called through and searched with a pat down search. Visitors can also be asked to be photographed and to the use of biometrics such as electronic fingerprint scanners prior to the visit taking place. Visitors are not always searched when leaving, but can be. They can also be marked in some way (such as with an ultra violet stamp) in order to prevent prisoners escaping by simply walking out or by swapping places with a similar looking relative. I have heard stories of twin brothers doing this every couple in order to share the sentence, but I have no way of knowing if this was true. All I can say is that it isn’t impossible.
As well as the pat down search there is also a search from a passive drug dog in which the visitor stands still whilst the dog is led around them to see if it indicates the presence of drugs.
During the visit some prisons require the prisoner to wear identifying clothing. At HMP Stoke Heath when I was there they made every prisoner wear a bright green boiler suit over the top of their clothes. At HMP Swinfen Hall they made prisoners wear coloured bibs. These measures have the dual purpose of ensuring that the right people leave at the end of the visit, and (in the case of the boiler suits) making it more difficult to pass contraband. Once the visit starts a major factor is surveillance. Social visits must take place in full sight and hearing of staff with the visits manager on a raised platform in order to view the entire room at all times. There can be officers both in fixed positions, and circulating the room. Most visits rooms are equipped with CCTV, but this is only an actual requirement in the case of high risk prisoners. In addition, particular visits may be targeted for direct surveillance, but authorisation must be given for this in advance.
Surveillance and security impacts considerably upon what is defined as acceptable behaviour in visits. As a minimum, prisoners should be allowed to embrace their visitors at the start and end of each visit, and (subject to safeguarding measures) increased contact with children permitted. However, different prisons (and different individual officers) draw the line at varying levels of contact. At one prison I was allowed to have my ex sit on my lap for the duration of the visit. At another, I was told that a hug at the start longer than two seconds was excessive.
The PSI states that stopping a visit should not normally be necessary unless an attempt is made to pass an unauthorised article, there is a threat or incitement to violence and urgent action is needed to prevent injury, plans for escapes, criminal offences, or the obstruction or perversion of justice are overheard, or an incident occurs between the prisoner and the visitor which threatens the smooth running of the visits session. This last one is the type of catch all which is built into most PSIs at one point or another. It gives staff the discretion to object to anything. What, for example, is to stop an officer from objecting to a couple having an argument? It is normal to argue occasionally and the couple wouldn’t even have to be arguing loudly or aggressively. If a member of staff wanted to object they could issue a verbal warning to stop arguing (which would be bound to annoy more than to quell) and then they can simply end the visit. Fortunately, I haven’t seen this happen, but I use it merely as an example of the extent of power that a single clause like this in the PSI creates.
The facilities available in visits can also vary dramatically. Sufficient seating, reasonable adjustments for disabled people, secure storage of visitors’ possessions, and provision of refreshments at a reasonable price are all expected as standard, but facilities can extend considerably. The refreshments on offer can just come from a vending machine, as they did at HMP Stoke Heath when I was there, but many prisons run a tea bar staffed either by prison staff or by a third party charity (such as POPS here at Wakefield and NEPACS at Frankland). The refreshments on offer are recommended to take account of visitor feedback and to cater to differing dietary and religious needs. Another recommendation is a space for children to play in both the Visitors Centre (another optional but recommended facility) and the visiting room, with toys to play with.
With regard to the end of visits, I have often seen people leave early. This is allowed and must be facilitated but I can never understand why someone would choose to do this after travelling (often over very long distances and for considerable time) to see the prisoner for just a couple of hours. I’m sure there are occasional circumstances which would necessitate this, but the frequency with which it seems to happen honestly shocks me. Especially when the prisoner is then left sitting in the visits room for as long as an hour (I’ve seen this happen) whilst everyone else’s visit continues around them. Generally speaking, visitors can leave the visit for a short time without terminating the visit so it is hard to understand why someone would have to call an early end to the day.
When the visit ends and all of the visitors have left, prisoners are searched according to local procedures. Some prisons strip search all prisoners. HMP Swinfen Hall used to do this when I was there, despite being a category B prison. Until recently the only prisons which were absolutely required to search all prisoners were high security establishments. However, a few years ago this was changed so that even high security prisons do not have to strip search all prisoners. Instead they are required to strip search all category A prisoners and a locally determined percentage of category B prisoners. Here that has been employed and though I don’t know the exact percentage that has been agreed here, I believe it is now around 10-20% of category B prisoners. On the other hand, HMP Frankland refused to change their practice whilst I was there and got around the change in the rules by merely setting the locally determined percentage at 100%, allowing them to continue searching everyone. The reason they gave for this was that category B prisoners come into contact with category A prisoners before, during, and after visits, so it was necessary. But the same is true at most high security prisons and the same draconian attitude is not taken.
For those prisoners who are not strip searched, the usual procedure is for them to be searched first with a hand held metal detector and then with a rub down search.
In the final part of this break down of prison visits tomorrow, I will be focusing in on a few types of special visit.