Chelmsford prisoners allowed visits for just 100 days throughout 2020 due to COVID-19

Prisoners at Chelmsford Prison – a Category B prison – were only allowed visits from loved ones for 100 days last year.

Public Health England (PHE) decided to stop in-person visits in England and Wales on March 24 based on an assessment which suggested between 2,500 and 3,500 prisoners were at risk of dying as a result of COVID-19.

Prisons suspended visits in Scotland and Northern Ireland on March 23.

Facilities in England and Wales were not given the all-clear to reopen visiting halls again until July 6 – providing that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) approved the safety measures in place at individual sites.

Chelmsford Prison allowed visitors again on July 27. It went back into lockdown on November 4 and reopened again on December 2, but closed again to visitors on December 20.

The BBC Shared Data Unit, which gathered information for 87 out of 139 prisons, found the establishment with the fewest number of days available for social visits was Leicester. Prisoners were allowed visitors for a total of 11 days.

HMP Humber and HMP Risley were open the most – prisoners were allowed visitors for 121 days in the 253-day period of study. Across prisons in the UK, the average number of days they were open to visitors was 94.

When prisons were able to open up visiting halls promptly, government guidance restricted inmates to face-to-face contact once a month and one video call. It means that more than 5,000 prisoners would have had a maximum of two visits from family members between March and December.

Jodie Beck, co-founder of Our Empty Chair, an online support group for families of prisoners, said the impact has been tough on prisoners and their families.

She said: “When you have a loved one in prison you base your life around maintaining that relationship. Having the physical contact taken away has had such a detrimental impact. The impact has been tough on the prisoners as well.

“We’ve heard loads of reports that prisoners are having to choose between talking to family members or having a shower because they have to be locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.”

Secure video calls began to be rolled out in May and are now fully available in all establishments. Over 135,000 video calls have been made totalling almost 67,500 hours. Despite remote calls being made available, families face restrictions on the number of people who can attend. The limit on the call is four people so a parent looking after three or more children will have to decide who participates.

Sarah Burrows, CEO of Children Heard and Seen, a charity supporting children who have parents in prison, stressed the importance of sufficient video calls and how children are becoming more isolated.

“If you only have a video call once a month you have to think how much you are investing in that – it’s massive,” she said.

“For a half-an-hour call, depending on the settings, it can freeze or it glitches.

“Prior to COVID, some parents were being Released on Temporary Licence. But once the lockdown measures started, that completely stopped. Many children then could not see their parents face-to-face for a number of months.”

Jake Richards, a barrister at 9 Gough Chambers, has been working with families who are trying to bring a claim against the Ministry of Justice for interference with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the right to a family life.

Mr Richards believes that children of parents in prison have been forgotten and that there was no guidance on how families could keep in contact with each other.

He said: “At the outset of the pandemic, prison visits were suspended. That is likely to be a reasonable approach to stop the spread of the virus in the prisons estate.

“What didn’t happen was any real coherent thinking or plan by which family members outside and in particular children of prisoners were going to be able to have meaningful contact with their parents who remain in prison.

“For children of prisoners, they were completely forgotten. There was no document, no guidance or support.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Each prison opened up when it was safe to do so last summer, and we have another clear evidence-based plan for easing the current restrictions to ensure prisoners are kept safe without being subject to the strictest measures for any longer than necessary.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter