Embracing Technology on the Inside

“I wish I could call my dad whenever I have something I want to tell him; instead, I have to wait ‘til he calls me, and that’s really hard.” Sally’s dad is in prison, and she expressed these thoughts about contact with her father during a session with her Person Shaped Support (PSS) worker.  PSS offers one-to-one and group work support in Liverpool to children affected by imprisonment and seeks to help them build confidence and resilience as they negotiate their way through a confusing and challenging time. The point Sally raises is an interesting one; why should she be punished just because her father is in prison? The punishment of prison, after all, is the lack of freedom for the prisoner; there is no need for a punitive approach to other aspects of a sentence. Fundamentally, prison must be about preventing future victims – something best achieved by helping prisoners to maintain contact with their families and preparing them to live law-abiding lives after release.

Given that prisoners who remain in close contact with their families are up to six times less likely to reoffend, it is a sobering statistic that about 50% lose contact with their families during their time in custody. Surely it is time that we made full use of the wide range of technology available in order to address this and, in so doing, minimise the impact of parental imprisonment on children like Sally? Here’s my vision for how things could be different for Sally and others like her:

  • Land-line telephones in cells. If Sally could call into the prison on a land-line installed in her father’s cell, it would vastly reduce her anxiety about her dad and would allow them to build up a meaningful relationship. Land-line telephones are easily monitored and controlled, and in-cell telephones reduce the temptation to smuggle in mobile phones. Furthermore, this would greatly reduce the cost of calls to prison, which for some families becomes prohibitive and a major reason why people lose contact with their loved ones in prison.
  • Emailing prisoners. The organisation Email a Prisoner facilitates an email system which helps family and friends communicate easily and frequently with prisoners. For children like Sally, this is an excellent way of communicating with a parent in prison (young people are far more likely to email than to write a letter by hand), as it is quick, efficient, and cheaper than a second class stamp. For the prisoner, this can make life more bearable and reduce thoughts of self-harm and suicide through increased      communication. Email can also be used to help prisoners prepare for release through partnerships with other services such as housing and employment agencies. If all prisons had this service, I wonder if we would see a vast reduction in the number of prisoners who lose contact with their families.
  • Skype and video-conferencing. Prison visits can be very difficult for families due to long distances and expense, and supplementing visits through Skype and video-conferencing could make a huge difference. Regular contact with her father in this way would make a significant difference to Sally’s development, academic progress, and emotional wellbeing. Skype enables contact in a way that minimises disruption and keeps costs down for families. Indeed, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended video links as an important means ofsupplementing face-to-face visits for children of prisoners. Such contact is especially important for families who are unable to visit, such as in the case of foreign national prisoners. Video-conferencing can also be used for parents’ evenings and engagement with other professionals in the community.

Given that the UK has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe, perhaps it is time that we asked questions and reimagined our approach. Telephones, email, and video-conferencing facilities all help the prisoner to remain connected to society. If we disconnect people entirely, there is little chance of them successfully re-engaging in society on release. Of course, there must be monitors and checks when it comes to the use of technology in prisons (watching TV 24 hours a day isn’t good for anyone), but a complete denial of these provisions is both short-sighted and counter-productive. If Sally’s father had no access to TV, for example, he would not be able to engage in the same way with her; TV can help parents in prison understand the world that their children are growing up in and indeed all prisoners to feel connected to society. Further, imprisonment is meant to punish the guilty, not the innocent: children like Sally are often the hidden victims of our criminal justice system, serving their own silent sentence; they should not suffer the consequences of an offence they did not commit any more than anyone else. Initiatives in prisons such as those highlighted here go a long way to strengthen vital links for prisoners in their inevitable return to the community.

The good news for Sally is that this year’s European Prisoners’ Children Week, which took place in the first week in June, launched an e-petition which aims to ensure that the topic of children with imprisoned parents is included in the conversation surrounding children’s rights at the international level. There is still time to sign the petition, and your signature could make a lasting difference to Sally and hundreds of thousands of children like her across Europe. Everything in prison should be about re-entering society positively, and we now have a range of technology available to help us be creative in how we do that. We really can use technology to make a difference, and you can play your part right now by signing here: www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/notmycrime!

Sarah Roberts is the Child and Family Support Manager with Families Outside. To read Sarah’s blog about the use of Skype in New York State prisons, visit www.familiesoutside.org.uk/winston-churchill-travel-fellowship/. For more information about Families Outside, go to www.familiesoutside.org.uk. You can also email Sarah directly on sarah.roberts@familiesoutside.org.uk.

For more information about Person Shaped Support visit www.psspeople.com.

Information about the Email a Prisoner scheme can be found on www.emailaprisoner.com.

For more information about European Prisoners’ Children Week, go to www.europeanprisonerschildrenweek.wordpress.com

Blog by our Child & Family Support Manager, Sarah Roberts – as seen on No Offence!

NO OFFENCE! is an award-winning Community Interest Company with a vision, ‘to be the leading cross sector criminal justice community in the world.” Our mission is to support and encourage the criminal justice sector to exchange information, collaborate and promote wider societal understanding of the solutions needed to effect positive change.

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