Work began six months ago but more than 3,500 prisoners still lack access to remote visits
Six months after the government pledged to urgently implement video calling to allow prisoners to receive virtual visitors during the coronavirus pandemic, seven institutions across England are Wales – collectively housing more than 3,500 inmates – are still yet to do so.
The rollout of videoconferencing across the prison estate was first recommended back in 2017 in a government-commissioner reviewed conducted by Conservative peer Lord Farmer.
This recommendation was suddenly fast-tracked shortly after the UK went into lockdown earlier this year, with Ministry of Justice spokesperson Lord Keen claiming in early April that the government was “urgently exploring options for the safe and secure use of video solutions” – which he added would be “available imminently”.
Six months on, the technology is up and running at 103 of the 110 institutions across England and Wales where installation is due to take place.
But, as of 28 September, video calls remain unavailable to adult inmates at Hollesley Bay, Kirkham, Leyhill, Swaleside, The Mount, and Warren Hill prisons, as well as the children housed at Oakhill Secure Training Centre.
The six prisons house a collective total of just over 3,500 offenders, equating to 4.5% of the nationwide total of 79,000. Eighty children are located at the Oakhill facility – about one in seven of the 560 that are in custody across England and Wales.
Prisons minister Lucy Frazer said: “These establishments have all taken receipt of the necessary equipment and staff have been trained. However, they have experienced networking and connectivity issues and, in some cases, have had to wait for broadband upgrades to the establishments as a whole. They are currently undertaking test calls and expect to go live as soon as possible.”
Answering a written parliamentary question from Labour MP Lyn Brown, the minister added: “We fully acknowledge the importance of family contact for those in custody, in line with the recommendations of Lord Farmer’s Reviews. This is why, following the necessary suspension of prison visits in March to keep prisoners, their families and staff safe during the pandemic, we introduced a range of measures including the introduction of secure video calls.”
In-person visits from friends and family to prisoners were suspended entirely back in March but have now recommenced on a limited basis, and subject to conditions allowing institutions to maintain social distancing.