09:53, August 31 113 0 theguardian.com

2020-08-31 09:53:03
Mother sues MoJ over child's lack of access to father in jails lockdown

A mother who fears her 19-month-old child will forget their father if prison visits do not resume soon has begun preliminary legal action against the Ministry of Justice.

Lawyers claim the lack of visits and video calls during the coronavirus pandemic is a breach of children’s human rights.

HMP Leicester has not allowed any family visits to the child’s father since lockdown began in March. The lawyers say a videolink system is not fit for purpose because it cuts out if eye contact is not maintained.

The mother said: “My child knows when the phone rings that it’s dada but he doesn’t know who he is. If my parents can do Zoom, I’m pretty certain the prison can set something up that works. And what about letting their dad quarantine on his own for two weeks before a visit? He would do anything to see his child.”

The family has been able to maintain phone contact but claim this does not work for a toddler who cannot hold a conversation.

MW Solicitors is also working with three other families in a similar situation. They include a baby and a disabled child with a shortened life expectancy who were unable to see their respective fathers in HMP Manchester.

Two other children aged two and four were not able to see their father at the category C HMP Erlestoke in Wiltshire from 24 March.

The lawyers claim there has been a breach of article 8 of the European convention on human rights and a failure to properly safeguard the best interests of children under the Children Act 2004.

Earlier in the pandemic the plight of children unable to see their mothers in jail was revealed in an investigation by parliament’s joint committee on human rights.

Harriet Harman, the committee chair, said at the time that there should be no “blanket ban on visits” for children to their mothers as it breached their rights.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “The decision to stop visits was not taken lightly. It was based on public health advice in response to an unprecedented emergency. We have introduced secure video calls at more than 80 prisons across the estate, provided more than 1,000 mobile phone handsets, and given extra phone credit to help prisoners maintain important family ties during the pandemic.”

They said they could not comment on individual cases.

So far, 13,700 video calls have taken place, in many cases using software called Purple Visits.

The government said the video technology had now been installed at HMP Manchester, with prisoners receiving a video call once a month, and it was incorrect to suggest the technology did not work if eye contact was lost.

Visits in person began at HMP Erlestoke on 3 August and the father in that case was visited on 5 August.

Jake Richards and Jonathan Metzer, two barristers representing the families, said in a statement: “We are hearing of more children suffering from significant harm because of the inaction of the Ministry of Justice. While we are all being encouraged to visit restaurants and pubs, there remain severe delays in resuming prison visits and introducing the fit-for-purpose video calling facilities that we take for granted outside prison.”

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