There is still 90% of prison estates that do not have in-cell phones yet. Therefore, I will give you a quick overview of how the phone system really works in our prisons.
The way you phone people from prison (right from the start – no exceptions, no “one phone call allowed”, nothing like that) is by going to one of the public phones in the corridor or wing, which are operated using a special PIN number. This system has several hurdles you will need to overcome.
On arriving you will be given a PIN which you need to enter before making any phone calls. From the start, this system immediately throws up three issues:
You have to be able to get to the phone, and therefore let out of your cell
You need to have money on this PIN
You have to be authorised to call the number you want to call
The PIN system can work fine, or it can be absolutely atrocious. The potential for all these to go wrong in turn, accompanied by the difficulty in getting anything done in prison with the application form system (see previous page), can leave you stranded. I could not make a call for almost four weeks – this is long, certainly, but not unusually so. Be prepared for that.
To take the above in turn:
In bang-up your time is limited to a couple of hours a day and less on weekends, and they’re strict about you trying to make a sneak call on the way to get your food. Quickly it becomes as clear that it’s the same couple of hours for a lot of people, so there are queues and crowding and not a lot of privacy. And many people will want to make a call at the same time (off-peak and out of office hours) which makes it worse. This is just the way it is.
When you arrive you get emergency credit on your PIN (£2 to £6 depending on prison, which is worth roughly 8-20 minutes). This money may or may not expire if unused in 3 days, a week, etc (again, all depends on the prison). After this time you will have to put phone credit on using “canteen” (see the section Buying goods in prison). This emergency credit IS the fabled “emergency call” people may have said you’re allowed on arrival – there is nothing else. And if (1) or (3) here don’t work, then there’s no phone call.
The phone system works on the basis of cleared numbers. You cannot just call any number, because the prisons have to check that you are not bullying witnesses, contacting victims, or calling anyone else you should not. (Also it’s actually quite useful if you’re worried about people taking advantage of you, because in theory they cannot use your PIN anyway).
Clearing phone numbers to make calls from prison
When you arrive in prison, you get a form on which you write down all the telephone numbers you want to call. Once completed, you hand it in to the guards office nearest your cell.
You will be trying to clear numbers as early as possible and you may not have your possessions, in which case you will only be able to clear those that you remember. Try to memorise as many as you can beforehand – with all numbers stored automatically in mobile phones nowadays, you’ll be surprised how few you know off the top of your head.
Memorise important phone numbers, you need to write them down and get them cleared before you can use them. Some prisons also ask for the address for that person.
Some prisons need the address for the phone numbers as well. In most instances you can make them up, but try to remember the first few lines of an address in case (don’t get too worked up about postcodes). Irritatingly (as it’s about the last address you’re likely to know) they often insist on your solicitor’s address – find it out before you go in.
As soon as you can, because of the above, get someone to send you all the phone numbers and addresses you will need in a letter. You could try to send it to yourself the day before your sentencing, but obviously it will not have your prison number (see the section below about Letters in prison) so it may not get through – have another ready to be sent as soon as you know it.
On the first or second working day after you hand in the form with these numbers, they will phone up to check these people want to hear from you. So anyone that you really want to be able to talk to should make sure they are next to any phone line you are likely to want to use, for as much of the days as they can be. If the prison does not get an an answer first time, they will rarely leave a message and are unlikely to try again. The form will simply arrive back with some numbers cleared and some not, and you will have to hand in another form a few days later.
Some prisons are lax and only check one or two numbers and tick them all off anyway. Apparently the more numbers you put on (maximum 20ish depending on prison), the less likely they are to bother checking all of them and just tick them off – so I’ve heard, may be a myth…
Remember that landlines are cheaper than mobiles, so although putting mobile numbers in means the person is more likely to pick up when they do the checking, in the long term it’s not a great way to communicate with regularly (such as your wife). Many landlines enable you to forward the number to another one (including a mobile) and the additional cost sits with the payer of the landline bill, so if there is someone you speak to a lot who is willing to foot the extra bill (such as your wife), they can set it up so they automatically divert their landline to the mobile whenever they leave the house, and then you only ever pay the landline rate but can get hold of them whenever.
Prisons cannot listen in to conversations between you and your solicitor, whereas they can listen in to calls with your friends. If you want to clear a “legal” number you may be required to do so on a different form. Also the lawyer must actively call the prison to say that their number should be cleared for use on the system (you cannot just put them on your normal list of friends). So, if you do not want the prison to listen in on the call with the solicitors you should make sure that your solicitor is contacting the prison to get his number cleared at the same time that you are putting the number on your sheet. If you do not need privacy you can just list them as a “friend”.
Making Calls on the First Night or First Few Days in Prison
So how do you call someone the first night, first couple of days, when none of this process has happened yet? Different prisons work different ways, they might:
Allow the “emergency credit” to be valid for any number (this would be the best outcome for you)
Automatically allow one or two numbers you give them the first night without needing to phone and verify (also ok, but relies on them actually getting the prison phone department to type in those numbers as “cleared” – which is unlikely within first 24 hours in the more disorganised prisons, especially if you’re not processed till 9pm)
Still need to verify the number as willing to accept calls, but will do it that night rather than wait till working hours (although they would still need to get the phone department to type in number as above – which just doesn’t happen unless you’re very lucky).
Support Groups Making Calls For You in Prison
You will see notices around prisons about support groups that can make calls for you, etc. In theory they should be able to help, but logistically these simply do not work that well unless it is a genuinely dire emergency – when incidentally, things do work pretty well. They are of course worth trying, but don’t bank on them working.
In all the circumstances, no-matter where he phone is situated within the prison estates, the public and victims will have the same protection, (if not more with the new intelligent system that is no within the estates).
Overall, it’s about having ‘brave forward thinkers’ like this to help us all in helping the prisoner help themselves. This then rolls out to a safer, wider society for us all.