Family contact and the cost of phone calls from prison

Jas, who’s on placement with CYCJ, looks at family contact and the real cost of making phone calls from prison in his first blog.

When a person breaks the law, they can be sentenced to a period of time in prison as a method of punishment.  Once in prison, it is widely accepted that maintaining links with both friends and family makes eventual re-integration into society a more streamlined process. In addition, studies have shown that those with close familial bonds are less likely to re-offend, therefore, making our communities safer places.

The Scottish Prison Service website states ‘supporting and maintaining family links and promoting positive relationships generally while the family member is in prison is one of the SPS’s key priorities going forward’.  It also states ‘we recognise that such positive relationships can make a valuable contribution in supporting offenders to desist from further offending’.  Therefore, the rationale is clear, family contact helps support desistance.

This is an admirable concept and can be seen to a certain extent with initiatives such as Family Contact Officers organising events, family visits and family days where children can see their parents in a more child-friendly atmosphere. These offer the opportunity to those imprisoned to bond with their children and one adult in the visit room, in a more relaxed environment, where the number of allocated visits is usually reduced, for example 4-8 prisoners per visit.

Prisoner’s and their children can usually move freely around the visit room interacting and there is usually games, such as games consoles, on which parents and children (must be under 16) can relax and bond.  Unfortunately, these visits are usually limited, due to demand, with two a month generally being the allowance, unless there are spaces available. The logistics and costs of attending these visits may also be problematic for those on low incomes.

These visits no doubt have a positive impact on a prisoner’s mental well-being, but perhaps more importantly, it allows children to have close physical and emotional contact with their parent during the period of enforced separation. This separation will be difficult and traumatic for children, so anything that helps bridge the gap and enables contact should be encouraged and promoted.

Another method of maintaining contact with family on the ‘outside’ is the use of the prison payphone. This is especially important for those with a partner/children living outside, as those on the outside are left with pressures of everyday life and those in prison should invariably wish to support them and maintain family contact.

At the start of every week, a canteen sheet is handed out to prisoners where they can purchase essential items (toiletries etc.) and basic items (tobacco, coffee etc.).  Money can also be deposited from their canteen sheet into a phone account, enabling contact with family and friends from an approved but limited list of phone numbers.

Funds for prisoners canteen sheet is provided by two sources, firstly, their own personal money (PPC) which can be handed in by friends or family.  Secondly, employment within the prison enables them to earn a ‘wage’. Wages tend to vary between £5-12 per week approximately (although there are limited enhanced jobs paying around £22 per week). The maximum a prisoner can access from their PPC account is £20 per week (Scottish Parliament, as cited in Piacentini, Weaver and Jardine, 2018). As the cost of living has increased, wages have not and in reality the amount is akin to the average child’s pocket money (Black, as cited by Piacentini et al., 2018).

While a canteen sheet of £25 to £32 per week may seem adequate, the reality of the situation is that after essentials are purchased, prisoners are not left with very much.  Whilst luxuries are optional, many prisoners come from households where income is low, with many relying on benefits. As well as this, the prisoner may have been the main provider before going to prison, thus finding the £20 a week for PPC is difficult for many families. AS a result, many prisoners do not have any money in their PPC.

This leaves just wages, so in effect even someone putting all of their wages into their phone account has to limit their family contact by phone.  This is exacerbated by the high cost of phone calls from prison. To call a landline from prison costs (7p/min) peak times 8am-6pm Monday-Friday and (6p/min) off-peak; to call a mobile phone at any time is (13p/min).  This is a serious problem for those wishing to phone their children/partner every day; it is also not uncommon for those who do not have much disposable income (partners, families) to rely on mobile phones as their point of contact, rather than paying for an expensive line rental package to have a landline installed at home.

I think this problem should be addressed. For example, a prisoner calling his/her partner and/or children every day for just ten minutes to a mobile phone would cost £1.30 per day, multiply this by 7 days means it would cost £9.10 per week (more than some prisoners wages).

Is ten minutes enough to go through the daily problems faced by those supporting the person imprisoned?  If there is more than one child, how can a parent give proper support and guidance when constantly checking if their phone credit is running down?  If your child is experiencing problems or needing support, or even just wanting a conversation with their mum and dad, rushing the conversation does not offer them support or make them feel listened to.

Whilst it could be argued those in prison are there to be punished, the knock-on effect of these high-call costs and the resultant lack of contact are in effect punishing the children of those in prison.  Children of those imprisoned are already in a vulnerable position with studies showing those with a parent in custody are at a higher risk of becoming involved with the criminal justice system themselves.

I believe that high phone call costs and low prison wages is a double-edged sword that makes the SPS’s literature of ‘encouraging positive relationships’, less achievable.  Furthermore, it seems strange that maintaining phone contact with loved ones is so limited when it is known that family contact whilst in custody encourages desistance upon release.

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