Last week, Alice, Roger and I visited HMP Gartree and spent an hour talking with some of the prisoners. We also saw inside the reception wing, plus had a quick look around much of the rest of the prison.
It was a fascinating visit, Gartree is a category B prison and houses many of the longer term, life sentenced prisoners in the UK, having changed direction a few times since it was built in 1965. We went for two reasons, firstly to understand what it is like inside a prison, albeit from only a brief visit. Secondly, we wanted to talk to prison officers and prisoners about the visiting process. Prisons are much as you might expect, lots of process and clanking of keys. Once we got through the gate, the staff were very helpful and informative about how the prison worked. No pictures, as phones must be left at the gate. Each cell is a medium size room, with some shelves and tv, not a lot of space. It felt a bit like a hospital in places, but with bigger doors and locking gates.
Talking to the prisoners, from the prisoner council, was an amazing opportunity to do some proper user research. It is so uncommon to get to work with the real audience for your products, not just people who might be interested in using it all. We spent an hour taking to them about their understanding of the prison visiting system in Gartree and heard about how it works in other prisons too. Making the visiting process easier on the families of the prisoners was a theme throughout the hour. There were plenty of ideas on how to make the process less rule bound and more flexible. An important insight was separating who the Visiting Order is sent to from when they are visiting. These are two separate processes, currently run as one end to end process, with the booking happening on the phone.
Ensuring the visiting order goes to the right person in enough time for them to book a visit is a common pattern, solved many times in other domains. The validation and checking processes do add a necessary layer of security and complexity. The discussion on these issues was invaluable, I want to talk to some more prisoners and feed all of this into the discovery process.
A simple request from one of the prisoners will give some of the flavour of the day. They wanted the web interface to quietly say MOJ. So that their family do not have to broadcast to any passerby that they have a son or partner, etc. in jail. Simple, human and easy to implement. My thanks to the prison for allowing us to visit. We are visiting a London local prison next.