The initial shock of having a partner arrested, seeing the police taking away your loved one can leave you feeling, angry, ashamed frightened and confused. Before you have had time to adjust with these new circumstances you will find your self thrust in to the UK prison system, arranging prison visits. Coping with visits are an added pressure but they are the main way of keeping in touch with someone in prison, through other forms of communication are available, letters and phone calls etc are also very valuable.
HOW SOON CAN I VISIT?
When your loved one becomes a convicted prisoner, s/he will be able to send you a visiting order (VO) before you are allowed to visit. In other prisons you may be entitled to a Reception Visit in the first few days of them being convicted. The VO process for reception Visits are handed to the prisoner during the reception process for new prisoners. In many prisons a VO is often left at the reception gate area for you to pick up when you arrive. If you are unsure about arrangements to visit it is always best to telephone the prison before visiting.
HOW OFTEN CAN I VISIT?
Every convicted prisoner has a legal right to two visits every 28 days. Additional visits may be permitted depending on the regime under which a prisoner is held. Under the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS) every prisoner is held on a Basic, Standard or an Enhanced Regime. Through good behavior and performance, prisoners can earn privileges which include more visits. These extra visits are at the governor’s discretion and can be removed if the prisoner breaks the rules or fails to maintain acceptable standards. Additions visits such as Privileged Visiting Orders (PVOs) are not normally allowed to take place at weekends. Every prison is different, but normally two V.Os and one PVO per month are allowed.
BEFORE YOUR FIRST VISIT
If you are visiting a prisoner remanded in custody to await trial, the rules are different to those for a convicted prisoner. You will need to phone the prison in advance, because even if you have visited a prisoner before, prisons vary a great deal in their arrangements for visits.
When you get through you can ask to be transferred to the visitors centre where someone will be able to help you with any questions you would like to ask about your visit. You will find that those working in the visitor’s centres are likely to be friendly and helpful. If there is no visitors centre prison staff will be happy to help you.
• What days and times are visits allowed?
• How many visits are allowed?
• How long will visits last?
• Do you have to book a visit? Most prisons now operate a telephone booking system. If the answer is yes, ask if you can book the visit there and then as it avoids another long wait for the phone to be answered. Prisons sometimes give you a booking number which you need to make a careful note of and bring it with you visit.
Please be aware that prison visit booking lines are very busy and you often have to wait a long time before you can get through.
How many people are allowed to visit at one time? Prisons vary again in the number of adults and children that can visit one prisoner. When booking please inform the staff of all the children’s ages that are coming along. The prison will want to know the names and addresses, plus contact phone number for the visitors (see below for ID details)
Are there special arrangements if you are bringing children to visit? (some prisoners need Child Protection checks before children can visit them). You may also want to find out if there are children’s play areas available during visits. If bringing a baby, check what you can take in with you (usually a bottle and nappy) and if there are any changing facilities?
What identification you need to bring? The list below is a guide, but remember prisons vary so it is always advisable to check.
When you come into the prison visitors centre you will need to remember three important things:
• Your Visiting Order
• Your booking reference number (if required)
• Your identification
You will need to bring two of the following forms of identification:
• Passport or EC identity card
• Driving licence
The above two are always accepted but prisons vary and you would be wise to bring some other form of identification just in case.
These also may be acceptable (please ALWAYS check before hand!)
• Benefits book
• Senior citizens public transport pass
• Employee or student ID card
• Birth/marriage certificate
• Rail or bus pass with photo
• Cheque book or credit/debit cars (counts as one)
• Young persons proof of age card
• Trade union or National Union of Students membership card
• Library card if it has a signature that can be compared with yours
• Rent book
• House/utility bills with you name and address on them
If you are bringing children you may have to bring:
• Their passport – or if they don’t have one:
• Their birth certificate or their medical card
What can I bring in for the prisoner? How much money is s/he allowed, how many clothes, can you bring in a radio? Ask whether the prisoner has to put in an application (or know as an ‘app’) before they can receive these items. Many visitors turn up with carefully packed gifts of clothes, magazines etc only to be told to take them home again. If you are bringing items in for the prisoner bring them in a bag that can easily be opened because officers will need to inspect them thoroughly. You will be handing these items to an officer not the prisoner. Ask if there is a tea bar or drinks and snacks machine in the visiting room, and bring along change for this if there is.
Don’t be afraid to ask for directions to the prison. If it is not in a town or city centre ask if there is a bus to the prison, where you need to go to catch it and what time it leaves. The Prison Service website www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk has travel directions to all prisons in England and Wales.
HOW WILL I FEEL BEFORE THE VISIT?
Here are some quotes from families:
“Very anxious, wondering what mood he will be in, how he’s coping with prison.”
“Very worried, apprehensive about what to expect.”
A male partner visiting a woman in a top security prison for the first time said:
“The whole thing was quite shocking to me, going through eight or nine locked doors to get to someone your seeing. It was the intimidation, and the wretched impression of a big prison like that.”
Others have felt better once they’re through the gates:
“It was a relief to get into the prison. I was much calmer then.”
YOUR FIRST VISIT
Your first visit is bound to be worrying and you may even find it frightening.
• Going through all the different gates with officers standing about with big keys and locking doors behind you.
• You will be made to leave everything in a locker, either at the visitors centre or in a waiting room. You will only be allowed to take in your locker key and a small amount of cash in your hand for refreshments.
• In some prisons you may have your hand stamped with an invisible ink stamp before you go in to the visits room. When you leave you will be asked to put your hand under an ultraviolet light machine to show up the otherwise invisible ink, this shows that you are a visitor and not a prisoner trying to escape. Other prisons may take hand prints or a photograph.
• All of this can be unnerving and can make an innocent person feel as if they have done something wrong. Just remember everyone feels like this and that the officers are only doing their job. Some do it with a smile and a friendly word, which makes all the difference.
• Waiting and waiting. Waiting for transport to get you to the prison. Waiting for the escort officer to take you over to the prison waiting room. Waiting to be searched. Waiting for the prisoners to be called into the visiting room (although you are always advised to arrive early for a visit, you will often find that visiting times start late) Waiting for an escort back to the main gate. Waiting for your transport home.
You will have to undergo a search before you can enter the visits room and see your partner. It is not that you are under any suspicion – all visitors have to be searched, including children and babies. This can feel quite intrusive, but the staff have to keep the prison as safe as possible. The way you are searched depends on the prison you are visiting but all prisons are allowed to carry out the full range of searches necessary.
The types of searches include:
Pat Down Search – A prison officer will ‘pat down’ the outside of our clothes. You may be asked to remove your coat and any other items you have with you will be searched.
Rub Down Search – A prison officer will search your hair, they will look in your ears, mouth, nose and between your fingers. The officer will then ‘rub down’ using open hands with fingers spread on the outside of your clothing. A mat will be provided whilst your shoes and feet are inspected.
Hand-held Metal Detector Search – A small wand-like metal detector (like those found at airport security checks) will be held close to your body and passed over and around you.
Strip Search – Two prison officers of the same sex as the person being searched carry out this search in private. During this search you will be asked to remove your clothing.
WHAT IF I REFUSE TO BE SEARCHED?
Anyone who refuses to be searched when going into a prison can be refused entry or have his or her contact with a prisoner restricted (you may have to have a closed visit in a small room behind glass). If a visitor is suspected of concealing un authorised items whilst in prison, reasonable force may be used to search them.
DRUG DOG SEARCHES
On entering a prison you may also meet with a dog handler with a sniffer dog. You will normally be asked to stand on a marker in line with other visitors. The handler will walk the dog along the line, it will let the handler know if something is wrong. There are extremely high penalties for attempting to bring drugs or banned items into a prison.
WHAT ARE VISITING ROOMS LIKE?
You may be summoned by an officer calling out the prisoners name and then you may go and join your partner at a table. In a lot of prisons you will find yourself allocated a table number where you will sit and wait for your partner to be brought in. Some prison visiting rooms have small square tables and plastic chairs at which the prisoner and visitors sit, sometimes the chairs are screwed to the floor.
The prisoner usually has to remain seated during a visit. Other prisons have low easy chairs and coffee tables. The prisoner may have to wear a brightly coloured vest over their clothing to identify themselves between prisoners and visitors. There are normally some sort of refreshments available or vending machines. Remember to bring plenty of loose change for these.
FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE FOR PRISON VISITS
You may be entitled to claim for the Assisted Prison Visits Scheme (APVS) The APVS provides financial help for partners and close relatives on a low income to visit prisoners. To apply you will have to collect an Assisted Prison Visits Claim Form, these are available in all prison visiting waiting rooms. For further information call 0845 300 1423 to see if you qualify for financial assistance.
SHOULD I BRING THE CHILDREN ON THE FIRST VISIT?
Between you, you’ll have to decide what would be best for you, your partner and the children themselves. You might prefer to leave the children with relatives so you can deal with a potentially stressful situation for the first time by yourself. You know your children best so it is for you to decide. Remember children will be searched so you may like to encourage your children to play ‘standing like a tree’ to prepare for this. You may want to take into consideration whether the visiting room has a play area.
HOW CAN I MAKE SURE IT’S A GOOD VISIT?
Its going to be touch maintaining a relationship when one partner is absent. Remember that the first couple of visits may feel overwhelming, because you will have many practical matters to discuss. You may both still be in a state of shock if your partner has only just been sent to prison or from a guilty verdict at the end of a trial.
Along with these painful feelings great comfort can be gained from looking forward to visits, to know that in spite of the separation you can still see each other and share things together.
Visits are very important – the high point of the week for most prisoners who have family and friends able to visit them. Good visits can comfort and sustain both partners until the next visit.
HOW WILL I BE ABLE TO KEEP MY RELATIONSHIP GOING OVER THE MONTHS AND YEARS?
Inevitably some couples are bound to run into difficulties, as some couples even do where no-one is in prison. Maybe you didn’t know about your partners activities until after he had been convicted, and you may have felt shocked and betrayed when he was arrested. If you genuinely didn’t know, or you never consented to those activities, then your relationship may be put under pressure by what you may view as a betrayal of trust.
Poor communication on visits can lead to severe stress on a relationship:
‘At every visit, each prisoner’s moods are going to be different. I saw my husband yesterday and he’s very down at the moment. On some visits, when i ask him about things, he just changes the subject, and I have to end up phoning the prison to find things out. He’ll keep in contact regularly for a couple of months by phone or letter, then he’ll stop and I’m lucky if I get a letter every couple of weeks. Sometimes I can’t see what the future will hold.”
KEEPING IN TOUCH BY LETTERS
A letter gives a prisoner something to hold onto, in a very real and material sense. And it can give the person writing the letter a feeling of sharing in the life of the person receiving it. Even a card or a postcard tells the recipient, ‘Your important, we’re thinking about you’ These are very important messages to hear if you are far away from home, feeling lonely, estranged or frightened of the future. The prisoner can also send cards, which will usually be bought in the prison shop (canteen) and it can make a big difference to the outside partner to realise he or she is being thought of in this way. Even young children can draw a picture to send to a parent in prison. School age children could send a piece of school work.
Letters can be a way of sharing feelings that can be difficult to talk about, especially if you take the children on visits. All incoming letters are opened and checked for banned items.
Thanks to Action for Prisoners Families for some of this information