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Howard League blog · 22 Apr 2022

The impact of restrictions on visits during the pandemic

This is the third blogpost in a series on Howard League members’ experiences in prison during the pandemic. It focuses on what members told us about the importance of visits, the impact of no longer seeing family members and friends, and how much harder they have found visits with restrictions.

In prisons, as in the outside world, lockdown separated people from their families and friends. But in prison, the isolation was more absolute and continued for much longer.

People in prison did not have immediate household members to keep them company and could not make frequent video calls to loved ones. Imprisoned parents could not comfort their children at a time of national crisis, and members told us about fathers who did not get to meet babies born during the pandemic nor could bond with young children.

The relatives of people in prison told us that they had rarely got to see them over the past two years. This intersected with the mental health impact of lockdown described in the last blog: while family members knew that their loved ones were struggling, and struggling very significantly in some cases, they could do little to help.

A window to reality

Members and family members wrote about the importance of visits and the impact of losing them. Several mentioned that the additional phone credit which they had been given during the pandemic had helped, but that this had not made up for in-person contact.

One member explained that the loss of visits had been perhaps the most painful part of the restrictions. In normal times, visits allowed people to “get away from the stresses and indignities of prison life, and to take a breath”. The pandemic had taken away this “window to reality”, dehumanising people in prison by severing their connection to the outside world and preventing them from experiencing the profoundly human feelings of comfort and love.

Another man felt that even before the pandemic, separation from family had been the hardest part of imprisonment: “Prison, or rather being taken away from family, was a living nightmare, even before lockdown.” His family had visited him every week before the pandemic, but these visits had stopped with Covid.

Prison, or rather being taken away from family, was a living nightmare, even before lockdown.”

The suspension of visits had also been difficult for family members. In their letters to us, family members focused on the impact on their relatives in prison – some describing severe ill-health – but occasionally commented on how hard it had been for them too. A member in prison told us that:

The stopping of visits made a big difference. Not seeing family and friends had an impact not just on my mental health but for my wife’s mental health.

However, visits could only have this impact if people received them in the first place. In our last blogpost, we noted that two older members had not minded the restrictions. One explained that this was partly because: “Changes to social visits/family visits made no difference to me. I don’t get visits anyway.”

Visits during the pandemic

The pandemic saw the introduction of “purple visits” – secure video calls which allowed people in prison to speak to family members and friends. Purple visits have been welcomed by many people in prison and their families, have been described as “a lifeline” for some by the prison inspectorate and will rightly remain an option after the pandemic is over.

However, the provision of purple visits has varied across the estate. For example, a recent Independent Monitoring Board report for HMP Ford found that purple visits could only be scheduled on weekdays there, preventing people from calling family members who were in full-time work or children who were at school.

Members’ responses made it clear that neither video visits nor in-person visits with restrictions could replace family contact before the pandemic. Members appreciated being given the means to stay in contact with loved ones, including both purple visits and extra phone credit. However, some also described problems with the purple visits system. Video calls did not always work and were not very long – for example, someone might get one half-hour visit per month.

“Still no hand holding, still no refreshments.”

Before the permanent easing of Covid restrictions in the general population, restrictions outside prison had a significant impact on visits. For example, one woman explained that her family lived around 140 miles away, had health problems and could not come to the prison without someone from another household driving them there. This had not been possible during the pandemic.

In prison, restrictions on visits were still in place at the time of the survey (carried out in February and March 2022). An elderly family member told us that two years after the beginning of lockdown:

Visits have been cut from four to two a month and virtual visits have also been reduced from four to two.

When both education and maintaining contact with family and friends are known to have a significant benefit in reducing reoffending, this is lunacy.

Those visits which did take place were described as “inhumane – conversation difficult due to distancing. Canteen facilities removed & replaced with expensive vending machines. Accentuate the distress felt by both prisoner & family”.

Others similarly commented on the fact that they could no longer even drink water during visits. A family member questioned why visits were restricted to an hour when they were reintroduced, and noted that there was:

Still no hand holding, still no refreshments. This all adds to the distress of visiting a loved one. I feel some of the restrictions have been imposed & kept in place for “ease” for the POA [Prison Officers’ Association], not the overall good of returning the rights of prisoners & family.

“It is too much for many people, and I have started putting off visits so that my friends and family don’t have to go through all that.”

Similarly, the man who described visits as a “window to reality” wrote about how difficult people in his prison found in-person visits where physical contact was banned, masks were mandatory and visitors had to sit at a distance. Visitors were also sent away if they had not taken a test, as he had recently seen:

Last week this happened to the 93 year-old grandmother of a guy on my wing. I was on that visit session and the staff had to escort him back to the wing after waiting for an hour and building up his hopes.

The whole experience now is extremely uncomfortable, overpoliced, and a far cry from what should be a relaxing environment where prisoners can de-stress and their visitors are made to feel welcome. It is too much for many people, and I have started putting off visits so that my friends and family don’t have to go through all that.

When the lockdown first began and these restrictions came into effect, many people refused to book visits even when they were opened up – because of the demeaning and unnatural conditions. I would turn up to a visit hall designed to accommodate 30 families, and be one of perhaps two or three men there – the whole place was empty. This only made it more awkward, because you felt more conscious of being watched all the time.

Reintroducing family contact

The experiences which members generously shared with us underline the value of visits for people in prison, and how difficult it has been to lose this connection to the outside world during the past two years.

Several members suggested that the restrictions were easier for prisons or gave them an excuse to covertly increase security. Others feared that in future, virtual visits or visits with distancing and no canteen facilities would be the norm. The responses show that this would be a terrible mistake: people in prison must be given the chance to hug their children and loved ones, remember what the outside world is like and feel some semblance of normality.

In our first blogpost on members’ experiences during the pandemic, we explained that the Prisons Strategy White Paper envisioned a transformed prison estate – but that there was no clear plan for getting to that point.

Though family contact is largely absent from the White Paper, it does recognise that secure video calls and in-cell phones cannot replace face-to-face contact. The White Paper vaguely commits to looking at “long-term options in line with the recommendations of Lord Farmer’s review for maintaining family ties and lessons learnt from the roll out during the pandemic”. Family ties will also be prioritised in the new performance measurement framework for prisons.

We will scrutinise the government’s proposals on family visits and contact as they develop. Our responses to any new policy ideas will be shaped by the lessons from the pandemic which our members have shared, and by the tragedy of a situation where people find themselves avoiding visits because the process is too distressing.

Andrea Coomber

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