Virtual prison visits prove popular

A New Zealand first which allows "virtual visits" between Taranaki families and prisoners serving time in Whanganui Prison is proving a hit.

The televised visits - using technology similar to Skype - were put in place for families and loved ones to keep in contact after the closure of New Plymouth Prison in March last year.

The "visits" have proved so popular they are now fully booked up to three weeks in advance.

An expanded service is in the pipeline.

The link was established in the knowledge some loved ones would be unable to afford the travel costs to Whanganui Prison or find the trips too difficult.

"From the service centre an approved visitor is able to see and talk to their loved one in Whanganui Prison via a television screen," Corrections acting lower north regional commissioner Paul Tomlinson said.

And since the virtual visits started on March 4 last year, there have been close to 300 visits.

The importance of having the contact is backed by both the Corrections Department and by prisoners' support group, Prisoners' Aid Rehabilitation (Pars). The organisation's volunteers facilitate the visits.

"Maintaining connections with friends and family is important for prisoners as it helps them to build positive relationships and plays an important part in reducing re-offending," Mr Tomlinson said.

The video link is in a room at the New Plymouth Community Probation Service Centre on Devon St West.

Up to three visitors can take part in the virtual visit at one time.

The sessions are 30 minutes long and available on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings.

Pars Taranaki president Barbara Sergeant, of New Plymouth, says the new technology had proved itself.

"It's been hugely successful. For us, it's working extremely well. We are part of the experiment. No-one else in the country is doing it."

Pars volunteers liaise with Whanganui prison staff to check visitors in and supervise visits.

They are in contact with the prison staff and the plug is pulled if there are any problems.

The Pars supervisor sits on one side of a dividing wall and the visitors on the other to afford them some privacy.

Mr Tomlinson said the technology might be introduced at other prisons and probation service centres in future. It was increasingly being used for video-linked court hearings and for defence lawyers in future.

"We are also currently working with District Courts in Whanganui, New Plymouth and Hamilton to establish good audio-visual links for court and lawyer interaction with prisoners," Mr Tomlinson said.

Taranaki Daily News