Covid prison lockdowns: Family visits ban at HMP Leeds and other jails leaves children 'hardest hit'
Families say the children of prisoners have been hardest hit after a new analysis revealed thousands of inmates would have had two social visits or less for most of last year.
While retail and leisure venues were gradually reopening in June 2020 following the initial lockdown, prisoners remained confined to their cells for 23 hours a day as part of Covid-19 protocols.
Governors were given the go-ahead to start reintroducing social visits from the start of July, but the BBC's Shared Data Unit found many did not implement plans until mid-August or later.
Prisoners in Leicester - where a city-wide local lockdown was announced on June 29 - had only 11 days on which to receive social visits from the start of the first national lockdown last March to the end of the second on December 2.
Even where prisons managed to open up visiting halls promptly, government guidance restricted inmates to one face-to-face contact a month and one video call, meaning more than 5,000 prisoners would have had a maximum of two visits from family members between March and December.
Social visits were allowed at HMP Leeds on 104 days, with the Category B prison locked down for the remaining 149 days of the period studied. It means it came 60th in a ranking of 87 UK prisons for total days spent on lockdown.
The analysis did not include HMP Wealstun at Thorp Arch or Wetherby Young Offender Institution.
Families have launched a legal challenge against the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) on human rights grounds, arguing that children of prisoners have had their right to a family life disproportionately affected.
They also fear history is repeating itself as the MoJ is yet to produce a plan to reintroduce visits and loosen the restrictions within facilities - even though the roadmap for recovery was set out in February.
Jodie Beck is co-founder of online support group Our Empty Chair, a collective of about 50 families who share their experiences of keeping in contact with a loved one in prison during the pandemic.
"Children have been the hardest hit by the suspension of physical visits," she said. "With the virtual technology, you can have a maximum of four people on a video call. If you have more than three children there is automatically going to be some exclusion.
"Small children and toddlers also can’t engage with the virtual technology - they rely on that touch and being able to see their parent or family member in person.
"At the sharp end of this, we have heard from people who are terrified that, when their loved one is released, their children won’t recognise them: it will be like a stranger entering the home."
While video calling facilities have now been rolled out across UK prisons, their implementation was phased, meaning some prisoners did not have access to the calls until this January.
Social visits are currently prohibited at HMP Leeds, meaning loved ones must rely on video calls, the Prison Voicemail system, email or letters to keep in touch. The Purple Visits video calls allow prisoners one 30-minute call per month, with a maximum of four people on the same call.
Jake Richards, the barrister leading the legal case against the Government, 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."
Defending its approach, 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."
Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United. With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe.