As of November, prisoners in HMP Magilligan in Northern Ireland have been allowed access to Skype as part of a new initiative to help prisoners maintain contact with their families. The scheme is believed to be the first of its kind in the UK and was introduced following an earlier trial in the prison.
Access to the online service, which allows for both video and voice calls, could mark a key new policy development and could allow for increased contact between imprisoned parents and their children, where appropriate, at a reduced cost and with a greater degree of interaction between children and parents than is provided by traditional telephone calls..
Over 70 prisoners have already been given access to the technology through which they can organise calls with their families; video calls are then conducted in soundproof, secure booths which are monitored by video surveillance.
Quoted by the BBC, HMP Magilligan Governor David Eagleson said that “..the uptake among the prison population was slow to start but it is being used by more and more prisoners, including foreign nationals, who are husbands and fathers and those who wish to maintain a good relationship with their families.
“We are now also planning to roll it out to more prisoners in the future.”
The potential for the expansion of the scheme to prisons beyond Magilligan is particularly welcome in light of a new report from the UK prisons inspection body, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons. HMIP published a new report on 29th January into the costs facing prisoners during their incarceration, in which particular attention was paid to the cost of telephone communication between prisoners and their families.
The report remarked that, “Maintaining family contact, where appropriate, is important for both the families of prisoners (particularly children) and prisoners themselves”, and that facilitating contact via phone is of particular importance when prisoners are held far from home or if visits are impractical or too expensive.
However, given restrictions to prisoner’s spending and earning capacity whilst in prison and the cost of the services, phone calls can be prohibitively expensive. This is the case particularly when a prisoner’s family is overseas, such as is the case for foreign nationals detained in UK prisons, or if a prisoner’s family only has access to a mobile phone.
One way to improve the situation would be to allow prisoners access to video call systems, such as Skype, which would be either free or be available at a much reduced cost. The report concluded that:
“Supervised use of social media could provide a low cost alternative to expensive calls for both domestic and foreign national prisoners. For example, supervised access to Skype by risk-assessed prisoners would enable prisoners to maintain contact with children and other families when the cost of telephone calls and visits is prohibitively expensive.”
The UK government has previously expressed a degree of openness to calls for increased access to online video services for prisoners. In the Government response to the Harris Report, released in December 2015, the Ministry of Justice observed that telephone and communication services for prisoners was subject to review currently but that the government was actively considering “the possibility of making greater use of Internet Based Video Services in the future, whilst addressing any security risks.” The government has yet to respond the HMP’s latest report.