Friday, 15 August 2014

Back in Prison Again...

There was no blog post yesterday because I was back in a prison. Fortunately, this time it was as a visitor rather than as an inmate. I thought some reflections on prison visits and visiting prisoners might be of interest to those readers who have never been inside a UK jail.

Visits hall
All prisons have visits halls or visiting rooms and prisoners are permitted to have visits from family and friends on certain days of the week. These vary from establishment to establishment. In addition, the actual number of visits each con can receive is dependent on whether he or she is on remand or has been convicted. Remand prisoners should be entitled to extra social visits. 

There are also differences based on the individual prisoner’s status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. Inmates on the Enhanced level should qualify for additional weekly visits, while those on Standard or Entry level may receive fewer and cons on Basic level will get a bare minimum, perhaps one or two per month.

There are also wide variations in practice between public sector prisons and contracted-out private establishments. Some of the latter allow visits on any day of the week, including weekends, while those operated by HM Prison Service may only allow visits on two or three days of the week. 

So assuming that you, as a potential visitor, have been placed on a prisoner’s list of people approved to come for visits, you will then have received your Visiting Order (or in the case of some private nicks, your e-mail confirmation of the visit). You will have been told the precise visiting hours and that you will need to bring photo ID (for example, a passport or driving licence).

Almost all UK prisons now have a visitors’ centre, usually situated just outside the visitors’ entrance to the prison. I’m told that many of these have improved massively in recent years, often because they are being operated by local charities or support groups. I was visiting a private sector prison, so the following description applies to one specific establishment, however, most of rules are standard throughout the prison system. It should be noted that high security prisons (A-cats) operate much tighter regimes, particularly in respect of pre-approving all visitors and imposing severe restrictions on contact visits.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of visits: social (family and friends) and official (legal representatives, Probation officers and the police). For social visits there are two possible scenarios: open visits and closed ones. Open visits mean that the visitor will be allowed to meet the prisoner face-to-face in a large visits hall and there will be a seating plan with groups of chairs around a small table. There will usually be a specific colour seat for the inmate and three other seats for visitors. During family visits, prisoners who have young children may be permitted to hold their kids, sit them on their knee and so on, depending on the specific rules of the establishment.

In contrast, closed visits are used for prisoners who have been put on special measures owing to previous incidents of smuggling contraband or for some other security issue. This type of visit is probably more familiar to people who have viewed traditional prison dramas and films, where the prisoner is separated from his or her visitors by a glass window.  

Closed visit
However, long before you actually get anywhere near the prisoner you are visiting, you’ll have to check-in at the visitors’ desk with your Visiting Order and ID. Some prisons require that they take your photograph and an electronic finger-print. This helps to ensure that the visitor who went in is the same person leaving at the end of the visit (and that prisoners haven’t slipped out with visitors in a bid to escape). I have to say that during my visit, all the prison staff I encountered were extremely pleasant and helpful.

Next you’ll need to deposit most of your personal belongings, particularly mobile phones, wallets, keys and money in a changing-room style locker. Some of these require a £1 coin to release the key, which you keep on you. 

That's worth two years inside...
Mobile phones are a massive security problem in prisons and just being in possession of one as a visitor inside a prison means that you will have broken the Offender Management Act (2007) and be liable to prosecution and a stay as a guest of Her Majesty for up to two years, as well as a potential fine. Mobile phones are ‘List B’ contraband, with drugs, explosives and weapons classed as ‘List A’. Even prison staff aren’t permitted to take mobiles into the prison itself; they have to leave theirs in the staff locker room by the main gate.

Once you’ve signed in and deposited all your potential contraband items in your locker, there is still some way to go before you get into the visits hall. At this point, you’re not actually inside the prison walls yet.

When the time for visits is called, you’ll line up clutching your Visiting Order, your ID and the locker key. Then you’ll need to get through security, so prepare to go through an airport style metal detector and to be body searched by an officer – and it’s shoes, belts and watches off to go through the x-ray machine. It’s not so very different from modern airports, but be aware that you may have to open your mouth so the officer can check there’s no contraband (mainly drugs) concealed and the soles of your feet and your hair may be checked. 

Of course, there is a very slight risk of a full strip search, although that will probably only happen in the high security estate or if security have intelligence that you’re carrying something that’s prohibited. Having been through some very intrusive body searches during my time inside as a con, it really wouldn’t worry me at all, but for newcomers to the prison system, it can be a bit daunting and rather humiliating. Just grin and bear it – or literally bare it - because a refusal is sure to offend and will get you chucked out of the prison or even arrested by the police if there’s a suspicion you may be carrying controlled substances. 

Once you’ve passed through security unscathed there may be a further wait until the name of the prisoner you are visiting is called. You’ll probably be told the number of table at which he or she will be sitting. Some nicks let visitors in first and then the inmate arrives; others have the con already present in the visiting hall. It seems that there is no set pattern for this. 

If the person you are visiting is on open visits in the visits hall, you will probably be permitted to take in a set amount of cash with you in order to purchase food, soft drinks and sweets to fuel-up your loved one or friend. Believe me, the food in some nicks is so bad these days that many prisoners use visiting days to fill up with carbs or luxury items that aren’t available inside the jail. Try to understand that it’s not that they’re being greedy, but many of them will actually be very hungry, particularly younger lads who may still be growing.

Some nicks only permit visitors to bring in coins, others only banknotes. I was amazed that yesterday I was told I could take in up to £50 in notes. A few – mainly private sector jails – have a pre-paid card system. Most visits halls or rooms have a cafĂ© style counter, as well as vending machines for soft drinks. The best ones even feature a small kitchen area where carb-heavy delights such as chips, toasties and burgers will be available. There may also be pre-packed sandwiches, cakes and biscuits, as well as chocolate and sweets. The way to a hungry con’s heart is definitely through his stomach.

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, visits can be stressful – both for visitors and cons – or they can provide a vital morale boost and a brief respite from the grinding monotony of life in the slammer. As I looked around the visits hall yesterday I was conscious of the way in which visits impact on individual prisoners in different ways. 

There were older couples just taking comfort in being back together for an hour and a half. Some were younger couples, quite a few with kids running around. There were a few very glamorous girlfriends dressed up to impress. Then there were young lads being visited by their mates and trying to ‘big it up’, as if life in the nick was just a big adventure. And, at a couple of tables, there were a few tears, and obvious sadness, maybe bad news from home or a death or illness in the family. 

Through the gate
And then, after 90 minutes, it was all over. An announcement was made that visiting time was coming to an end and people started to say their goodbyes. Couples were locked in tight embraces, stretching out their last few moments together. I was very conscious that in a matter of minutes I’d be exiting through the visitors’ centre, picking up my belongings and stepping back into the world outside, while my friend would remain sitting on his chair until we had all left and then he’d be taken back to the bare concrete box in which he currently lives.

For me, this was my first time back inside a prison since I was released in March. It was a strange feeling to be re-entering a closed world behind massive reinforced concrete walls and razor wire. The moment that the heavy barred gate at the entry to the visits hall slammed shut and was locked was a stark reminder of the life I’d been living in B-cats and C-cats during my own time inside. However, none of it was frightening for me. If prison ever really had any deterrent value, it no longer does and I'll definitely be visiting again.


  1. One point to add is that at some prisons, visitors find it very hard to get their full amount of visiting time. Sometimes visitors are given a number on arrival, and enter in numerical order when visiting time starts. It can take nearly an hour to get everyone in, so the early numbers get a much longer visit than the later ones. This can be very distressing for someone who has come a long way, and stressful for the prisoner who is sitting waiting, not sure if they are going to turn up. At other prisons everyone is checked before visiting time starts and they all go in together.

    1. Thanks for your contribution. That is a very good point to make.

      It seems that every prison has its own system, some much better than others. The private sector establishment I visited earlier this week seemed very efficient and we were 'processed' in around half an hour, so the visit started right on time. Funnily enough this was a prison that has been slated in the news all week!

      I should also have added something to the post about Accumulated Visits. This is where a prisoner whose family live too far away to travel to visit can 'save up' his or her visit allocation and then request a temporary transfer to a prison much nearer their family. Then they can have a series of visits over a week or so and then return to their usual location.

      I've been informed by lads still in the nick that because of the present overcrowding there is effectively no chance of getting a move to use Accumulated Visits and requests are being ignored or rejected. If any reader of this blog has more info on this situation, I'd be very interested in hearing about their own experiences or those of a family member or friend who is currently inside.

  2. It is difficult to visit my son in prison. On a good travelling day if we leave home at 8 in the morning we will not get home until 9 at night. I am in my 70's and my husband in his 80's We arrive home exhausted. Consequently we manage to visit about every 3 months. We are his only visitors. We have stayed in a hotel overnight and visited on 2 days at a time but of course the expense is a restriction. My son has applied for accumulated visits in a regular basis but all requests have been ignored.