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Helping people on low incomes with the cost of visiting family in prison
The new digital service allows the prison visitor to self-assess eligibility and apply for assistance online
12 October 2018 | Posted by Chirag Agarwal

The new Help with Prison Visits digital service, built by HMPPS Digital Studio (part of MOJ Digital & Technology) and Kainos, is making it easier for people on low incomes to get help with paying for visits to family and friends in prison. There is also a staff-facing user-interface to process claims faster and more effectively.

There are currently around 86,000 people in prison in the UK. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) is responsible not only for detaining them, but also their welfare and rehabilitation.

The Assisted Prison Visits Scheme (APVS) enables people on low incomes to visit loved ones in prison. It’s an important service – The MOJ Resettlement Survey 2008 showed that offenders could be 39% less likely to re-offend if they had received family visits whilst in custody.

The challenge

Previously, the scheme was run as a paper-based postal service that was costly and time consuming for everyone involved. It involved completing and mailing a form, and waiting on receipt of a giro cheque which could be exchanged for cash at a Post Office branch. The case workers worked on a ‘production line’ system, with applications moving from one person to another to process claims over a period of time.

The process could take up to 4 weeks from application to payment. For people on low incomes, a delay in getting paid is a serious problem.

HMPPS wanted to enable visitors to make a claim more quickly and easily, in a way that would also be less time consuming for caseworkers to administer.

Having identified the opportunity to digitise their service, HMPPS partnered with Kainos and the joint team were tasked with improving the process for both the end user and the department, to deliver on customer satisfaction, accuracy and costs.

The new Help with Prison Visits digital service

In June 2017 HMPPS launched the new digital service, Help with Prison Visits. The team completed discovery, alpha and beta phases, and launched the new service in 10 months.

Following the service design principles of building a service around user needs, the team carried out extensive user research with both sets of users – Prison Visitors and  caseworkers.

The research and discovery phase was essential to getting a picture of a service that delivered real value to the prison visitor but used a process that was complex, slow and outdated. At the time the service was launched, the team had carried out user research with 1,000 prison visitors – approximately a third of all active users of the service – through online & offline surveys, usability labs and research visits to prison visitor centres.

The team were able to deliver rapidly by;

  • implementing Gov.UK Notify to communicate with claimants,
  • prove eligibility of qualifying benefits through an API with DWP built by the Legal Aid Agency
  • Reusing MoJ single sign on for case workers
  • Verify mileage using Google tools.

The new Help with Prison Visits service allows the prison visitor to self-assess eligibility and apply for assistance online.

This improved process enables users to easily add photos of eligibility, receipts, confirmation of visits or rail tickets, and keep track of the status of their claim  and payment throughout the process. It also provides a staff-facing user interface for processing of APVS claims.

The process is more reliable, less labour intensive and will enable cost savings over the longer term, upskilling of staff and allow HMPPS more time to focus on prisoner welfare and rehabilitation.

This, and other services HMPPS are developing; Digital Disbursements and Send money to a prisoner, will make people’s lives easier and save taxpayer money. Please get in touch if you have any questions or comments.

Written in conjunction with Jennifer Myerscough, HMPPS Product Manager.

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