19:36, August 09 71 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-09 19:36:03
'Some prisoners should be able to Skype family' says review

Video call technology should be made available to some prisoners so they can stay in touch with family members unable to visit them, a review ordered by the government has suggested.

So-called “virtual visits” should be offered to inmates whose relatives are unable to attend jail because of illness, distance or other factors, according to the report.

It suggests Skype calls to encourage face-to-face contact for prisoners including foreign nationals or the parents of young babies as part of proposals to prevent re-offending.

Lord Farmer was commissioned last year to examine the importance of strengthening family ties in relation to re-offending rates.

The peer found strong family relationships to be fundamental to change and “indispensable” for delivering the government’s plans for prison reform in England and Wales.

The prison system has surging levels of violence and self-harm as well as an increasing number of attacks on staff. Last month saw prison riots with violence breaking out at jails in Hertfordshire and Worcestershire.

Research indicates that re-offending rates are 39% lower among prisoners who receive visits from a partner or relative compared to those inmates who did not have family contact.

The Farmer review found that while there are areas of good practice, there is “unacceptable inconsistency” on the issue of family links.

It recommends that a “virtual visits” would be appropriate for a small percentage of the prison population with relatives who cannot visit them regularly or at all. “This would most likely include most foreign nationals but also, for example, it might also be too disruptive for new babies, young children or teenagers studying for important exams to come into prison to visit at frequent intervals – but virtual visits would keep up the contact in the mean time,” the review found.

The blueprint cites a facility in Northern Ireland where prisoners have been making personal video calls. The initiative would ensure that those inside “do not become stuck in a technological dark age which will ill-equip them for life on the outside”.

Relatives should be able to call into the prisons from their own homes without incurring any extra charges and should be given help with the technology if required, according to the report.

Lord Farmer’s findings also show there is “little respect” for family ties when prisoner locations are determined. He warns that the role of family work is “under-recognised” in current policy and recommends that governors be held to account for family work outcomes.

The peer said: “My report is not sentimental about prisoners’ families, as if they can, simply by their presence, alchemise a disposition to commit crime into one that is law-abiding.

“However, I do want to hammer home a very simple principle of reform that needs to be a golden thread running through the prison system and the agencies that surround it.

“That principle is that relationships are fundamentally important if people are to change.”

The Ministry of Justice said it has already started developing a strategy for taking forward the review’s recommendations.

The justice secretary, David Lidington, said the government was committed to transforming prisons into places of safety and recognised the need to provide inmates with opportunities to change their behaviour.

He said there are numerous examples of good practice, adding: “We will continue work on a strategy to best support offender needs. That has to start with the numbers of prison officers available to support offenders which is why we are increasing staffing numbers by 2,500.”

Data released last month showed there were 26,643 assaults in prisons in the year to March including a record 7,159 attacks on staff, averaging 20 a day.