In this guest blog, Prisons and Probation Minister Lucy Frazer QC MP gives an update on the rollout of video calling in prisons, what’s involved in setting establishments up with this technology, and what prisoners and their friends and family can expect.
We recognise that family contact provides a crucial lifeline for those in our care. Although visits are now re-starting in many prisons with certain modifications, this has become an even more pressing issue following the restrictions brought in because of Covid-19.
Families and friends can be a positive influence on those in the criminal justice system, and strengthening the ties individuals have with their families and friends is one of many important factors to successful rehabilitation. We know that reoffending is 39% lower for prisoners who receive contact from their family, compared to those who do not.
Recognising the vital role that video calling can play in helping those in our care, we have worked at speed to bring in new technology. We announced in May that we would be introducing secure family video calls at prisons and young offender institutes across England and Wales, and the facility is now available at 64 establishments.
Where establishments are operating live calls individual prison pages are being updated. The other establishments are being trained, having equipment delivered, holding test calls or addressing local configuration issues.
There are a number of steps that each establishment must undertake before it can offer live calls to families, including training staff, completing test calls, and deciding the times and days they will offer calls so that their bespoke booking portal can be built. In addition, the team have had a number of problems to overcome with local networks, including ensuring access and dealing with slow speeds.
Despite these challenges, by the end of August video calls will be available to all female prisoners and to all young people in the youth estate; equipment will be deployed across the entire public estate; and the majority of the male estate will have completed their test calls and will be rolling calls out to their whole population. It takes an average of three weeks from delivery of equipment for a prison to make video calls available, but the pace depends on prison regimes locally.
We are always conscious of the need to maintain security and keep the public safe. That is why we are using technology specifically designed for use in prisons. Software called Purple Visits ensures that video calling can be delivered in a secure way and in line with an acceptable use policy.
The software has a range of built-in security features. For example, all visitors need to verify their identity and be approved before a call takes place. If an unapproved face appears on the call, the call will automatically pause. In addition to the software security features, prison staff monitor calls via a separate terminal and can pause or terminate calls if necessary. Unfortunately, free-to-use video calling applications do not offer the level of protection required in prisons and would not be suitable.
As part of our emergency solution, prisoners use secure laptops to conduct video calls. In some prisons, prisoners make a request for a call with their family member/friend. In other prisons, the request is made by the family member/friend via the Purple Visits app. Each prisoner has access to one video call per month, lasting 30 minutes.
Whilst this current video call service is a temporary measure, intended for use whilst contact with family and friends is limited as a result of social distancing measures, we are considering a longer-term solution for video calls in line with Lord Farmer’s recommendations, focussing on those who do not receive face-to-face visits under normal circumstances.
I am convinced that technology can play an important role in helping people in the criminal justice system turn their lives round, both within prison and after release.
Photo: © Andrew Aitchison
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We are extremely disappointed that the JCVI advice on phase 2 of the COVID vaccination programme does not prioritise people in prison and those who work with them, including voluntary sector staff and volunteers https://gov.uk/government/publications/priority-groups-for-phase-2-of-the-coronavirus-covid-19-vaccination-programme-advice-from-the-jcvi/jcvi-interim-statement-on-phase-2-of-the-covid-19-vaccination-programme