The prisoner phone scheme mustn’t distract us from bigger prison reform issues


Birmingham City University criminologists Professor Elizabeth Yardley and Dr Mohammed Rahman share their views on Justice Secretary David Gauke’s announcement that UK prison inmates are to be given phones in their cells.

Ask any prisoners what the worst thing is about being in prison and many of them will tell you that its being away from families and friends. Many of the criticisms we’ve seen about the prison phone scheme are along the lines of “Why should they get phones?”, “They’ve committed a crime, they deserve to be punished, they don’t deserve to have luxuries".


Birmingham City University

Being able to communicate with your loved ones is not a luxury, we would argue that it forms part of a basic human right. Indeed this is enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, stating that everyone has the right to respect for family life. Prisoners queuing up on the landing to use the phone will always create a tense and anxious atmosphere – they want to talk to their partners, children and relatives. It’s often the highlight of the day or week. The conversations they want to have are often conversations they can’t have in spaces where many other people are within earshot. They want to tell their loved ones that they love and miss them – and this is not conducive to the hyper masculine self that you have to present to others to survive in some prisons. Phones in cells go some way to overcoming these issues, but this raises another issue – overcrowding.

Prison cells are far from being private spaces. Society’s desire to lock up more and more people for ever increasing periods of time hasn’t been matched by an investment in the resources that this creates. We can’t build prisons quickly enough to keep up with our insatiable need to put people behind bars. Out of sight, out of mind. We lock up all the criminals, we lock up the bit of ourselves that we don’t want to confront – the knowledge that our neoliberal society characterised by selfish individualism might actually be part of the problem. Where there used to be one person in a cell, there are now at least two. When prisoners are banged up for 23 hours a day – which is far from unusual – there’s not much scope for private phone calls at all.

We're concerned that prisoners are still having to pay to use these phones and would like to know how reasonable – or indeed unreasonable – the charges are. Too many commercial entities have benefitted disproportionately from the contracting out and privatisation of prison services – when an organisation driven by profit is charged with providing a service, it is always the bottom line that’s priority. Introducing a profit motive to the prison service was always a recipe for disaster. If Gauke is really committed to treating prisoners with decency and fairness, he’ll commit to making sure that this system is fair, equitable and accessible and does not disadvantage people who literally have no money at all.

We should be cautiously encouraged by the proposed scheme. We have a prison system that has consistently let people down by packing prisoners in to overcrowded establishments, by cutting back on education and training and limiting pleasurable past times that give people a sense of purpose and wellbeing. And it’s not just prisoners that are let down by this – its everyone. If we don’t treat prisoners like people, if we don’t invest in them, show them respect, give them an opportunity to change and leave crime behind, then why would they? Prison budgets are an easy target for cuts – no one is going to kick up a stink about reducing the money available for prisons in the same way that they do when health or social care budgets are slashed. There’s also been a distinct lack of consistent leadership for our prisons – David Gauke is the sixth person to occupy the post of Secretary of State for Justice in the eight-year period from 2010. Let’s hope he’s true to his word to treat prisoners “fairly and consistently, with time out of their cells, activities, and the opportunity to maintain family relationships”. For that, he needs to stick around for longer than his career-ladder predecessors. He also needs to lead the way in changing how we think about prisoners – focusing on who they are and who they could be rather than what they have done, which continues to prevail in a climate of penal punitivism.

All in all, this scheme is an important and potentially valuable one but we need to ensure that this does not distract us from bigger issues around prison reform. That comes down to taking a good look at who we’re locking up – do they actually need to be in prison in the first place? Many people do not and we’re actually doing more harm than good in giving them custodial sentences. This isn’t just about harm to them but harm to their families and communities. If we get this right, we shouldn’t have to worry so much about giving them access to phones because most of them would not actually be away from their families.  

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