increasing access to phones in UK prisons

The UK Ministry of Justice is considering installing telephones within prisoners’ cells.  Currently prisoners share telephones installed in common areas.  Queuing for telephone use constrains telephone use, creates arguments among prisoners, and increases tension within prisons.  Telephone equipment costs are low relative to revenue gained from prisoner telephone service.  Adding telephones to prisoners’ cells would increase prison revenue, reduce risks of prison disturbances, and increase prisoner welfare.

Prisoners in England gained access to telephones relatively recently.  Prior to the terrible Strangeways prison riot in April, 1990, English prisoners did not have regular access to telephone service.  Lord Woolf’s enquiry into the causes of the Strangeways prison riot found that lack of communication between inmates and their families contributed to tensions that burst out in the riot. That finding led to telephones being installed on landings in English prisons.

Allowing prisoners to make telephone calls from within their prison cells would not reduce public safety.  Prisoners’ telephone calls are not monitored by having a prison official watch prisoners making telephone calls or by having a prison official stand near the phone trying to overhear telephone conversations.  Prison phone networks include technology that identifies prisoners, controls who each prisoner can call, controls call length and call frequency, records every conversation, and monitors conversations for illegal activity and suspicious communication.  The location of prison phones is irrelevant to prison call control and monitoring technology.

Installing phones in prisoners’ cells could help to improve public safety by making authorized prison phones more attractive relative to contraband cell phones.  Contraband cell phones allow prisoners to make telephone calls without having to queue to use the common, authorized prison phone.  Contraband cell phones, by allowing prisoners to make calls from within their cells, also allow prisoners to make calls with less risk of other prisoners overhearing their conversations.  That element of privacy is distinct from official monitoring.  Authorized phones within prisoners’ cells would eliminate these two advantages of contraband cell phones and hence reduce the demand for contraband cell phones.

The extent of hostility towards the reasonable proposal to install telephones in prisoners’ cells is astonishing.  The Daily Mail article on the proposal generated 225 comments. Most of the commenters oppose the proposal.  Many of those commenters are angry, contemptuous, or disdainful.  A BBC article on the proposal generated 416 comments, with a similar pattern of responses.  Compared to the UK, the US imprisons a much higher share of its population, imposes longer prison sentences, and has harsher prison conditions.  The US public reaction to such a proposal probably would be even more hostile.

Important connections apparently are failing in communication with prisoners.  The problem is bigger than telephone service.

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