Do Private Prisons Do More For Family Contact?

It has been reported time and time again that contact with family, friends, and the outside world is an essential element of prisoner reform. More and more prisons in the UK are finally realising this too, and making efforts to provide their inmates with more family contact. We also have innovative companies improving the quality of family contact for prisoners, such as Purple Visits, which offers a video-calling service for prisoners and their families. With increasing visiting potential and the introduction of more modern communication services it raises the question, is there a disparity between what private and public prisons can offer respectively?

Private prisons, also known as ‘for-profit’ prisons, were introduced to the UK in the 1990s. They are still government run, of course, but are contracted out to third party companies who are in charge of the daily operation of the prison. Public or private, all prisons must meet government standards and regulations, and will need to be inspected frequently to ensure the standards are maintained. They all endure unannounced inspections from HM Prisons Inspectorate, and must oblige to the recommendations made. Usually these third parties will be paid either for each prisoner or the total capacity of the establishment. Last year, only 19% of prisoners were housed in private prisons in England and Wales. Overall, the UK only has 14 private prisons compared to 120 government run prisons. The three companies that operate private prisons today include G4S, Serco, and Sodexo.


Private prisons do remain somewhat controversial. The blending of commercialisation of a company with rehabilitation of individuals does not sit well with some people. Some see the concept as unethical as it appears to put justice in the hands of a commercial business, rather than the government. However, private prisons must still have government input throughout their running and meet the standards of HM Prisons Inspectorate, so this theory is quickly disproven. There are also public concerns of the ethos and interests of those running private prisons, the main concerns being centred around where their priorities lie. Do those in charge put money-making ahead of the living conditions of the inmates? And are they more concerned with reducing staff and the cost of regimes than the restoration of prisoners? Many sit on the other side of the fence, seeing private prison as an innovative and efficient way to make money for the country, while giving prisoners a purpose and getting them ready for the outside world. Since private prisons make money, they can, in theory, provide better care, conditions, and support for those serving time. Whether this stretches over to improving family contact is another matter entirely.

Family contact is a very different thing in 2019 to what it was a couple of decades ago. Not only can you visit inmates in person and receive calls from their cells, but nowadays there are voicemail services, video calling, emailing services and a wider variety of visiting days available. There is even a service called Storybook Dads, launched in 2002, which allows fathers in prison to record storybooks for their children. Family-inmate contact is better than it’s ever been.

Image by Elliot Brown

Due to their more business-minded operation, private prisons tend to be more innovative than public prisons. This would therefore suggest that they could offer more innovative ideas for family contact. HMP Oakwood, run by G4S, is a great example of this. They have created the S.O.F.T. Scheme (Strengthening Oakwood Family Ties). This scheme recognises the benefits of family contact for both the prisoner and their family, and in particular how it can contribute to better behaviour and a reduced likeliness of recidivism. For these reasons, they offer relative/friends visits, Lifer’s days, and family learning visits, all of which take place in a more relaxed environment than a normal visit, and offer families the chance to take part in group activities and even have meals together.

It appears, through research online, that G4S make a huge effort in encouraging family contact, and making it as easy as possible. They have an online booking system, offering visitation booking slots almost every day of the week. They also offer the voicemail services and emailing services mentioned earlier. In fact, their website alone is helpful and encouraging, and provides plenty of information to make the process of family contact easier for everyone involved.

On the other hand, another privately run prison, HMP Lowdham Grange which is operated by Serco, only indicates one special visiting service on their website, for inmates to see their children/grandchildren, but the frequency of these visits isn’t made clear, and you must be in prison for six months before you can apply. Furthermore, domestic visits can only be booked by the prisoners themselves, not by family members. This may serve as an inconvenience for family members as the process of arranging a time and date that suits everyone would be much more difficult.

The clear disparities do not only appear in private prisons, but also in public prisons too. HMP Berwyn in Wales only offers family visits four times a year, but is looking to increase these days, whereas HMP Norwich offers special visits for families in a separate, more relaxed room ideal for children of all ages, and also has a dedicated Play Space for children 0-8 years old, to make sure children feel happy and comfortable during prison visits. Norwich prison has also teamed up with Spurgeon’s Children’s Charity, which works on supporting children and young people from disadvantaged circumstances, including those with friends or relatives in prison. They run the visitors’ centre at HMP Norwich to provide care and support for those visiting. Not only does Norwich provide facilities which improve the experience of family visits, they also actively provide support for families going through a difficult experience, without a doubt increasing the quality of family contact for both prisoners and family members.

These four case studies demonstrate just how varied the experience and efforts towards family contact differ between prisons, despite their private or public operation. There is no clear correlation between privatisation of a prison and an increase or decrease in quality of family contact. When it comes to visiting hours, most prisons in the UK provide slots during most days of the week, some less than others, and the visitation rights differ depending on the category of the prisoner, their crime, and their behaviour in the prison. It seemingly has nothing to do with whether the prison is private or public. Equally, the accessibility to a telephone is dependent on the facilities in the prison, and the category of the prisoner – neither of which seem to greatly correlate with the operation of the prison. It appears that some prisons have more variety of contact, including voice-mailing, emailing, and video-calling services, but these do not correspond with their private or public status either. The prison voicemail service is now available for almost every prison in the UK, and the email service for the majority. Upon research, it is clear that successful private prisons do not always plug more money into resources for family contact, but instead may focus on living conditions, staff and food quality – at least these are the points that crop up most when looking into the results of unannounced prison inspections last year. Considering this, and the case studies above, we would say that private prisons do not necessarily do more for family contact than publicly run prisons.

There are clear disparities between prisons in terms of the quality of family contact, but no obvious difference between private and public operations. Furthermore, prisoner-family contact is undoubtedly better than it’s ever been, but can be so much better. Prisons are beginning to see the benefits of maintaining support networks outside of the prison environment, be that with friends or family, to protect the mental health of prisoners and reduce recidivism rates. With society becoming more aware of mental health issues and technology developing at a vast rate, we can expect to see leaps and bounds of progress for prisoner-family contact in the future; Watch this space.

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