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Handling prison visit requests: the inside story

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HMP/YOI Rochester
HMP/YOI Rochester

We asked Peter Hickey, Head of Operations at HMP/YOI Rochester to give us the low-down on what it was like to be one of the first prisons in England and Wales to use the new online prison visits request service. This is what he told us.

Doing things in a new way

“Previously our visit booking systems were paper-based which made for a lot of extra work,” Peter explains. “We understood the need for change, not least because HM Prison Service needs to improve efficiency and make savings where possible.”

“But the biggest challenge to using the new service was overcoming resistance to change, for everyone: prison staff, prisoners and visitors. There’s an emotional attachment to the way things have always been done. It’s hard for people to let go of the past, and take on a new way of doing things, especially when, as far as they can see, the existing system is working very well.”

“It’s really important that the new system produces results that are immediately apparent, in order to win people over, to win hearts and minds.”

A gradual transition

HMP/YOI Rochester ran the new service in tandem with the existing paper-based system for the first month.

“It was important that we made the transition gradually to give everyone a chance to get used to the new way of doing things,” Peter explains. “The biggest change was getting rid of paper Visiting Orders (VOs). In the old way of doing things, prisoners used to have to complete these and send them to visitors so that they could book a visit.”

“In the new service, the visitor can simply go online and request a visit - as long as they are on the prisoner’s approved visiting list.”

Word of mouth endorsement

“It’s really important to have buy-in from the top - at Prison Governor level - in order for any new service to succeed,” explains Peter.

“But alongside that, it’s important that people can see for themselves that the new way of doing things is working. Especially in an environment like prison which is like a village or a small town. Obviously there are the official channels of advice and communication, but there’s also a lot of word-of-mouth chat, like people recommending things over the garden fence.

“For example one prisoner saying to another ‘it was much faster for me.’ It’s that kind of endorsement you need in order for a new system to succeed.”

Booking staff enjoy greater flexibility

As well as being available to visitors 24/7, the new service has also brought significant benefits to booking staff.

“Moving to dealing with the majority of visit requests by email gives booking staff far more flexibility. For example, if a large number of requests have come in, too many to be dealt with in daytime working hours, then clearing the backlog can be assigned to night staff,” says Peter.

“Not having to be physically present to answer phone calls within a certain time frame frees staff up to prioritise workloads.”

A visit from Paul Shetler and Mike Bracken: looking to the future  

In March 2014 Peter hosted a visit to HMP /YOI Rochester by Paul Shetler, Chief Digital Officer, Ministry of Justice and Mike Bracken, Executive Director (Digital), Cabinet Office.

“Both Paul and Mike had a good understanding of the kinds of challenges we face, particularly in terms of security. I think they could see that we’ve made a strong commitment to the ‘digital agenda’. We had a good exchange of ideas about potential digital projects for the future. It was quite inspiring.”

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