Prison Visits: Part Four

This week I have been taking a look at some of the rules applied to prison visits. In today’s final installment of this series I’ll be focusing on some special types of visit.

In certain circumstances prisoners can be put on closed visits. This is where they are separated from their visitor by a glass window. There are a few reasons this can happen ranging from national security to the protection of health, but the main reason this is done is usually to prevent the smuggling of contraband where either the visitor or prisoner has recently been caught attempting this, or where the drugs dogs have indicated the presence of illicit substances. Under the same circumstances, visitors can also be banned from the establishment. Closed visits and visitor bans can be imposed for up to three months in the first instance but the governor can make make this longer – though not indefinitely. However long the closed visits are applied for, it must be reviewed every month to assess whether there is a need for it to continue. Prisoners can appeal via the standard complaints procedure. Visitors can appeal by letter or telephone to the prison governor.

Closed visits have been classed as an administrative measure and separate from the adjudications process. This means that a prisoner could be placed on report for smuggling drugs in, found not guilty because the charge is not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and yet still placed on closed visits because a governor decides that on the balance of probabilities they had done what was alleged – even if this was not proved.

In applying a visitor ban or closed visits governors should consider whether the prisoner was bullied or coerced into smuggling items in, whether the visitor is key to preventing the prisoner self harming or committing suicide; or if it would cause disproportionate harm to the rights of the prisoner’s child.

If a prisoner is transferred during a period of closed visits then the period will still continue at their new establishment.

On the other hand, there are also some positive kinds of visit which may be applied at the governor’s discretion. One of these is a ‘special visit’. This could be to facilitate the winding up of business affairs after conviction, to assist with the conduct of legal proceedings, to pass on news of a seriously ill or recently deceased close family member, or for a seriously ill prisoner to receive visits. Another type of visit is family visits. These are usually held in the normal visits hall, but with a more relaxed atmosphere. Here at Wakefield this is characterised by visitors being able to get up and walk around, and to sit at any table (rather than an allocated one). At Frankland, competitions are often put on as well. At Swinfen Hall they let families come over to the wings for a short period see their loved one’s cell. Back on the Carlford Unit of Warren Hill some time back they did a similar thing, but had to cease allowing families into cells when it led to the smuggling of contraband and to some prisoners being caught with their partners becoming a little too amorous. This isn’t something that stopped when cell doors got locked off though. At the next family day a small group of prisoners stuffed bits of paper into the lock of one of the store cupboards and squirted glue into it so it couldn’t be locked. When the family day happened the next morning this gave couples a place to disappear for awhile.

Inter prison visits are where two close relatives at different prisons are allowed to visit each other by one being transported to the other’s establishment. This can be done once every three months but, in circumstances where it is exceptionally difficult to organise, video link facilities can be considered as an alternative.

Accumulated visits are where a prisoner does not use their allotment of visiting orders and saves up to 26 instead. Once accumulated they can then be used back to back either at the prisoner’s normal establishment (which might appeal to prisoners whose family must travel from overseas to see them) or at another prison which they would be temporarily transferred to (appealing more to prisoners whose family live far away from the prisoner’s normal establishment and can’t travel long distances). Provision can even be made to take accumulated visits at prisons in Scotland, Northern Island, the Channels Islands, or the Isle of Man – though a written request must be made to Cross Border Transfer Section in such cases.

Occasionally there will be what is called a ‘final contact visit’. This is where, as a result of a prisoner being convicted, their children are taken into care or adopted. With the help of social services these are largely private visits and a chance for the parent and their children to say goodbye to one another. It is considered an important source of closure for all parties, even if it is very distressing to go through.

Official Prison Visitors (OPVs) are volunteers who have been vetted and are assigned to a prisoner to visit. OPVs do not require a visiting order to visit and can visit a number of prisoners at any one time. In some prisons OPVs visit prisoners in their cells. In others these visits take place in the chapel. However, in most cases they take place in the visits hall as normal visits do.

The final type of visits are official visits. Generally speaking, journalists and researchers can visit in an official capacity (by application) or in a social capacity (in which case they can be asked by the establishment to sign a declaration that nothing discussed on the visit will be used by them professionally).

Other official visitors can include everyone from legal advisors to religious leaders, MPs to police officers, representatives of the Royal British Legion to Samaritans. Most of these require the prisoner’s consent for the visit to go ahead. The only exception is that visits to immigration detainees from immigration officials, visits for the service of a summons, and certain visits by police or customs officers do not need consent. With regard to legal advisers, these may visit in order to discuss ongoing legal proceedings, other legal business such as making a will, or matters relating to forthcoming adjudications. Legal advisors may use a sound recording device but only if a written undertaking is made that they will keep the recording securely and use it only for professional purposes.

Where police visit for the purpose of an interview, the interview should be carried out according to the same regulations as if it were taking place in a police station.

Official visits take place in sight, but not in hearing of prison staff and generally this means being located in a dedicated room. However, I have been at some prisons where this was simply ignored and prisoners were expected to have official visits in the standard visits room around staff and other prisoners. This could be very distressing when discussing confidential legal matters or personal physical or mental health problems and the like.

Like every PSI I have looked at so far, this is just another example of where the established written rules do not necessarily reflect reality at ground level. There seems to be at least one rule in every area of prison life that highlights this.

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