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Connecting prisoners and their families through technology

By Richard Branson

13 October 2015

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Being able to speak to my family every day is something that I take for granted, like most people. But for prisoners, staying in close contact with their families is incredibly difficult.

The main purpose of prison should be to rehabilitate people so they have the opportunity to return back into society and play a meaningful role in society. But if prisoners are cut adrift from their families, if their loved ones live too far away, it makes reintegration even more difficult.

For the past three years, Igniting Change has been working with Pastor Norm Reed to support his groundbreaking work connecting families through video visiting. The program currently operates from Risdon Prison in Tasmania, and when I arrived in Melbourne I was fortunate enough to join an imprisoned father in Tasmania and his son via video.

As father and son spoke, they both had the most beautiful smiles on their face. I asked the dad what being able to speak to his son meant to him: “It’s hard to put into words,” he told me. “We are a very close family. Seeing my boys is everything to me. They live a long way from the jail. I can’t explain how nice it is. I really appreciate it.” After I left them in privacy, the father listened to his son playing the guitar and was reduced to tears as the connection means so much to him.

UK Prison Reform Trust research found that 65 per cent of boys who have had a father in prison, go on to offend themselves. Creating and encouraging healthy family contact whilst in custody can reduce the likelihood of offending by up to six times. What’s more, video visiting can save money because visits to prison are so expensive and time-consuming.

FaceMe, a video conference company I caught up with on my last visit Down Under, are providing the technology support to make video visiting. FaceMe is proving to work better than other tools like Skype, as it is very secure, and they can actually bring things like homework up on the screen so dads can help their kids with their studies in specially arranged sessions at school. Teachers come into the prison and take the dads through the homework before they then take the kids through it. As a dad I’d be terrified the kids would know how to do the homework and I’d have no idea!

Being in prison dads have one thing to offer that many didn’t have on the outside – time! The prisoners are really engaged in the program and it was clear to see the positive impact it can have straight away. The family connection is so important and makes a huge difference. You can take a tablet to a birth, to a wedding or to a funeral. Helping your child with their homework, having a chat, or perhaps one day even reading a story to them before they go to be bed can make an enormous difference.

When I visited Ironwood Prison in the US last year, I could see how this could have an impact far beyond Australia. Now we are looking into rolling out this video visiting program across Australia and beyond, creating a model for international uptake.

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