Prison Voice­mail

Phone sys­tem al­low­ing pris­on­ers to stay in con­tact with their fam­i­lies

The Observer - The New Review - - Cover story - pris­on­voice­

The suc­cess of any busi­ness in­no­va­tion lies in pro­vid­ing a ser­vice that has hith­erto not ex­isted. Alex Red­ston and Kieran Ball found just such a thing, but for two groups of con­sumers in whom few en­trepreneurs have shown much in­ter­est: pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies. In late 2015, the pair founded Prison Voice­mail, which aims to make it eas­ier for peo­ple on the in­side to main­tain con­tact – and there­fore keep good re­la­tion­ships – with those on the out­side. The prison phone sys­tem has proved frus­trat­ing for both par­ties be­cause there’s a great de­mand on too few phones in­side and it can be quite ex­pen­sive. It’s one of the rea­sons il­licit mo­bile phones have pro­lif­er­ated in pris­ons.

Red­ston, with a back­ground in “a lot of startup ad­ven­tures”, has a dis­tant rel­a­tive in prison, so he knew the dif­fi­cul­ties pris­on­ers faced with com­mu­ni­ca­tion. He and Ball, who had worked in mi­cro­fi­nance and the char­ity sec­tor, saw that one ma­jor is­sue was missed calls. If a prisoner couldn’t get through, he or she of­ten wouldn’t know if their loved one or rel­a­tive re­alised that they had tried. That could cause a great deal of un­needed stress.

“Why can’t you leave a voice­mail?” they asked. So they set about de­sign­ing a sys­tem in which those on the out­side could leave mes­sages that the pris­on­ers could ac­cess. Hav­ing de­vel­oped a pro­to­type, they ap­proached the most lib­eral prison gov­er­nor they could find, at HMP Lin­coln, and man­aged to get the sys­tem in­stalled. They also got into a fur­ther seven pris­ons be­fore bu­reau­cracy in­ter­vened. There was con­cern with the is­sue of mon­i­tor­ing calls, but Prison Voice­mail doesn’t af­fect the ar­range­ments for mon­i­tor­ing some pris­on­ers’ calls. Soon they were back on track.

It’s now used in 109 pris­ons. They have been im­pressed by how sup­port­ive the prison sys­tem and the Min­istry of Jus­tice have been. And although it’s still not that well known – only 5% of pris­on­ers are ac­tu­ally us­ing it – there has been a lot of pos­i­tive feed­back from pris­on­ers and their re­lieved fam­i­lies.

How­ever, one group of peo­ple hasn’t al­ways been en­thu­si­as­tic. “Some en­trepreneurs are a bit sniffy about it,” says Red­ston. “Their at­ti­tude is, why would you want to do that? I find that very telling about them. Peo­ple may not em­pathise with pris­on­ers, but their fam­i­lies – they’re vic­tims of crime as well.” AA

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