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Rights of Prisoners and their families

There are few instances where there is any limit placed on the legal rights of people in the UK. However one such instance where a constraint is placed on people’s rights, is where they are imprisoned having committed a crime and been found guilty by a court of law. Unfortunately people are not always familiar with exactly what their rights, and the rights of their families are when they are imprisoned.

rights of prisoners and families legal guide uk

In this guide, we tell you everything that you need to know about your rights and those of your family if you are facing imprisonment.


  • The limitations imposed on prisoner’s rights;
  • The rights of the prisoner in prison;
  • The rights of a prisoner’s family.


What happens when I am imprisoned?

It may sound obvious but your being imprisoned means that there is a legal restriction being placed on the rights that you would otherwise have enjoyed. The best way of thinking about imprisonment is that, for the duration of your incarceration, you will be denied some of the rights and privileges that are enjoyed by other members of society.

Can I still have access to legal advice in prison?

It is not uncommon that following your being imprisoned, you may still need to speak to a solicitor from time-to-time. This is most often the case if there is a ground of appeal to the sentence that you have been given, which your solicitor has informed you is worth pursuing. By law all prisoners are entitled to speak to a solicitor ‘at any reasonable time’. In practice this tends to involve an appointment between you and your solicitor being booked in advance –it is unlikely that you will be able to speak to a solicitor at a moment’s notice.

Will I ever be able to see my family while I am imprisoned?

The short answer to this question is, yes. However you must appreciate that there are different rules governing family visitation to prisoners in the different parts of the UK.

For most prisons in the United Kingdom there are standardised rules for prison visits by families. In most cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland up to three people can visit a prisoner at any one time –you should check with the prison in question if there are any special rules concerning prison visits by children. You will normally be permitted to enjoy one half hour visit every week. Alternatively you could opt for a two hour visit every 28 days. You will normally be required to complete some paperwork, outlining who will be visiting you and when they intend to visit. The situation is slightly different if you are deemed to be a ‘Category A prisoner’i.e. someone that poses a particular danger to the public, or threat to national security should you escape. If you do fall into this category, you will normally need to liaise with the police regarding any family visits. This can take some time, as it involves an extensive check of your criminal record. However if you believe that there is a special case to be made, then you could put your point in writing and have it presented to the Governor of the prison for their consideration.

In Scotland there is no standardised process regarding prison visits. Each prison will operate its own particular procedure. In most cases each prison will have a phone line for prisoners to book family visits –as in England and Wales, three people at a time may visit you in prison. It is not normally the case that there will be any particular rule against children visiting you, but you should check with the prison in question. Weekly visits are commonplace for prisoners. In Scotland visits concerning prisoners deemed to warrant ‘high supervision’can also expect a more lengthy process in arranging family visits.

Regardless as to where you are imprisoned, if your family are coming to visit you they will in all likelihood be searched to ensure that they are not brining anything dangerous into the prison.

Can my family bring anything into the prison?

As with visitation rights there is a slight different in procedure, depending on where in the UK you are imprisoned as to your family bringing things into the prison. In England and Wales it is advisable that you contact the prison in question –food, drink and money is in most cases not permitted to be brought into the prison. It may be permissible for clothes and toiletries to be brought in, but this will have to be provided to the prison staff first who will conduct a thorough search of it before passing it on to you. In Northern Ireland your family will be permitted to provide you with clothing parcels, but you should check with prison staff as to what items of clothing they are allowed to bring you.

In Scotland there is a procedure for bringing property into a prison. You will be required to complete a pro-form if you want your family to bring you property or clothing. This document must be completed by you, and authorised by prison personnel. Once approved it will be sent to your home address and will stipulate what your family can, and cannot bring into the prison. If an item is not included on the list as being allowed, it will be impossible to bring it into the prison. Some prisons in Scotland will allow for money to be brought in for you, but this must normally be provided to the prison in advance of your family’s visit.

Personal items e.g. pictures, drawings etc. will normally be permitted to be brought into prison. However they will normally be inspected by prison staff before being handed over to you.

Can my family get help if they will struggle to visit me?

In some cases your family may not necessarily have the financial resources to visit you in prison. It is possible that they may be able to contact the Assisted Prisons Visit Unit (APVU) for help. In order to qualify for assistance, the person that is attempting to visit you must meet certain criteria:

  1. Be your close relative or partner, aged over 18; and
  2. Be claiming some form of benefit, including:
    1. Income Support;
    2. Tax credits; or
    3. Pension Credit.

If the person visiting you meets the above criteria, or is on a low income, the APVU will in most cases be able to assist with the cost of their making the journey to visit you. Financial assistance can also be provided in respects of childcare and the cost of any overnight accommodation that your relative or partner might incur in making their way to visit you.

It should be noted however that there are restrictions on who will be deemed to be a ‘relative’. Relatives ‘in-law’will not be counted for financial support. Furthermore where your visitor is claimed to be your unmarried partner, there will need to be documentary evidence to support this.

Can I keep in contact with my family while imprisoned?

You are encouraged to keep in regular contact with your family members when you are imprisoned. However the rules that allow you to do so are different throughout the UK.

In England and Wales, convicted prisoners are limited to being able to send one letter per week. There are circumstances where you may be allowed to send more e.g. family emergency or where you yourself pay for the postage. However this is not a right that prisoners can expect, and may be taken away if the prison staff decide to do so. As with visitation rights, letters from individuals deemed to be a particular risk to security may be inspected by prison staff. Letters to legal advisors and the courts, along with those addressed to your local MP and in some cases a medical professional, are confidential. You will also be able to make telephone calls to your family: you will be given a PIN number to use as part of the PIN phone system. As one would expect however calls are restricted and may be monitored.

In Scotland you are allowed to write as many letters as you like. You should be aware however that if the prison staff suspect that the letter concerns criminal activity, or if they have reason to be concerned for security, they are permitted to open the letter. Letters addressed to your solicitor may also be opened by prison staff. Most prisons also provide dedicated phones from which you can contact your family. You will be able to buy electronic cards to pay for your phone calls while in prison. It should be noted that your phone calls, like those made by prisoners in other parts of the UK, will be recorded and may be monitored by prison staff is they deem such action to be necessary. Some prisons allow prisoners to send e-mails to family members, but this is not a right that is granted to prisoners as a matter of law. Some prisons do not provide this service, and where it is not available, the traditional means of communication will be available.

Prisoners in Northern Ireland are generally not restricted in the number of letters that they are able to send to family. The same safety precautions and procedures that apply in the rest of the UK will continue to be observed. Phone calls to family are permitted. Your family will be able to give you some money with which you will be able to contact them –no more than £500. This money can then be used to contact your family.

Who do I contact about my treatment in prison?

It is understandable that both you and your family will be anxious to ensure that you are not treated unjustly while you are in prison.

If you or your family has concerns about the treatment that you have received from prison staff, you should use the internal complaints procedure in the first instance to voice your concerns.

The process for voicing complaints regarding medical treatment is different, depending on the part of the UK that you are imprisoned in. In Northern Ireland concerns regarding medical treatment should be brought to the attention of prison staff. In Scotland, the NHS is responsible for the medical care of prisoners and any concerns should be brought to the attention of NHS staff. In England and Wales any concerns regarding medical treatment should, in the first instance, be brought to the attention of prison staff. If their response is not satisfactory, you can approach the Prisons and Probations Ombudsman, and ask them to look into the matter.

Key points

  • Being imprisoned results in a restriction on the rights that you would have otherwise enjoyed as a free citizen;
  • Contact between prisoners and legal advisors is permitted;
  • Prisoners are encouraged to keep in contact with members of their family, but the rules for doing so are different throughout the UK;
  • Family members are permitted to bring things into prison for you, but only after they have been checked by prison staff;
  • If your family will struggle to visit you for financial reasons, then they may be able to seek financial assistance provided that they meet certain criteria;
  • If you have concerns about the treatment that you have received while imprisoned, you can contact the prison staff and make a complaint.

Nothing in this guide is intended to constitute legal advice and you are strongly advised to seek independent legal advice on matters that affect you.

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Last Updated

Tuesday, 14 November 2017


Criminal Law