North East prisoners had no visits for most of last year after pandemic rules
Families have launched a legal challenge on Human Rights grounds after saying their loved ones behind bars have been “forgotten” during the pandemic.
Relatives have begun the action against the Ministry of Justice, saying the children of prisoners have had their right to a family life disproportionately affected by the crisis.
It comes after BBC analysis revealed thousands of inmates would have had two social visits or less throughout most of last year, with prisoners also confined to their cells for 23 hours a day as part of coronavirus protocols.
Governors allowed to start reintroducing social visits from July 2020, but the Shared Data Unit found many did not implement plans until mid-August or later as it looked at the two 2020 lockdowns.
HMP Low Newton, which takes women and young offenders, was closed from March 24 to July 27 and then again from October 13 to December 2, a total of 175, with it open for 78 days.
At HMP Durham, a category B reception prison for men, it reopened on August 17, before closing from November 6 to December 2, with it shut for a total of 172 days and open for 81, with HMP Deerbolt young offenders’ institute, it opened one day later in August, so was closed for 173 days.
Category C holding prison HMP Northumberland was shut from up to July 22 and then from November 6 to December 2, a total of 146 days, with 107 open.
The data for other North East prisons was not available.
Even where prisons opened visiting halls promptly, guidance restricted inmates to one face-to-face contact a month and one video call, meaning 5,000-plus prisoners would have had a maximum of two visits between March and December.
While video calling facilities have been rolled, their use was phased, meaning some did not have access until January 2021.
Jake Richards, the barrister leading the legal case, accused Whitehall of having “no coherent plan” to maintain the contact between children and their imprisoned parents because of the inconsistent approach across the estate.
“This has led to unfairness,” he said.
“Depending on where your parent is in prison that will affect your right to go and see them - that can’t be right.”
While that fight goes on, families in the region have been supported by the charity Nepacs, which is gathering the views of relatives and inmates as it looks for improvements, with a virtual event planed via Zoom on Thursday, April 8, from 9.30am to noon.
Amanda Lacey, chief executive said: "At Nepacs our staff and volunteers have noticed the struggles that residents and their loved ones are experiencing and the impact that cancellation of visits has had on them, particularly children."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “There is no question our response has saved lives and helped protect the NHS, with infections and deaths in prisons significantly lower than predicted at the start of the pandemic.
“Each prison opened up when it was safe to do so last summer, and we have another clear evidence-based plan for easing the current restrictions to ensure prisoners are kept safe without being subject to the strictest measures for any longer than necessary.”
More about Nepacs can be found via http://www.nepacs.co.uk/ and its helpline can be called on 0800 012 1539.