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“Lost in translation”? Fighting for your liberty on video

Penelope Gibbs
29 Sep 2017
I’ve only had one good experience with video link, and I’ve had lots of experience, lots and lots, and only one of them has ever been good
Prison lawyer

The use of video in criminal justice has grown tentacles, and one of those tentacles is into parole hearings. Prisoners seeking parole need to appear in front of the quasi-judicial body, the parole board, where a lawyer advocates for their release. Traditionally the parole board (2/3 members) has gone to the prison to hear parole cases in situ. The hearing has been held in a meeting room in which all the parties – prisoner, lawyer, probation officer and parole members – sit in the same room.

In 2013 the Parole Board decided to experiment with video hearings. To my knowledge they have never piloted them or done any research on them. On introduction, the then chair of the Parole Board Sir David Calvert-Smith told Inside Time “video link hearings will take some getting used to for everyone involved…But they are now, in fact, not unusual to find in Court and they are also helping to save time and money. Most importantly, they are beginning to reduce delays for everyone”.

In fact there was no evidence in 2013 that video hearings saved money for courts, but the Parole Board went ahead. They used the video facilities and rooms that prisons had set up for prison-court video hearings, and set up a hub in London from which parole board members could connect to prisons by video. Video parole hearings started then and continue now, but we still don’t know what effect they have on outcomes and on parties’ perceptions of the fairness of the process.

The current chair and CEO of the parole board inherited video hearings and are open to hearing differing views on their merits. In researching video hearings for defendants and prisoners, I’ve gathered some views on parole hearings on video. I’ve got less then twenty responses (and two in-depth interviews) but amongst them are significant concerns about video parole hearings.

The technology and facilities are not always fit for purpose:

“My general experience of video-link hearings is that they are of poor technical quality meaning that: a) there is a time-lag whilst the sound/picture are encrypted/de-encrypted which makes any sort of conversation impossible, as in natural discourse people interrupt each other, or follow on quickly when the first person stops speaking. b) There is a further disconnect between sound and vision meaning that one is often out of sync with the other again making it more difficult for parties to effectively communicate with each other” (Parole Board member)

“Equipment failure happens very frequently, and by equipment failure I mean total failure, as in the hearing couldn’t go forward – the hearing that I and my client had prepared for, and my client’s family had prepared for. And as a result my client was detained when everyone was recommending his release… And so not only was my client detained for a further six months…when everybody was recommending his release, but the victim’s family had prepared themselves and come to give their statement, and the whole thing had to be postponed. It was horrible” (Prison Lawyer)

The infrastructure is not suitable. The video rooms in prisons are designed for prison-court hearings – for one or two people at most. Parole board hearings involve many more, and the people simply can’t squeeze into the rooms available.

“In one prison, the video link room is so small that I’m practically sitting in my client’s lap. At HMP xxxx I did a video link parole board hearing with a young man who was convicted of very serious offences. He is very confused about his sexuality, and was very seriously abused as a child, and has issues with kind of being confined, and people being too close to him. And there were one, two, three, four professionals, two community probation officers, a prison probation officer and me, in a room, and him, obviously, in a room the size of a box room, doing a video link parole board hearing…it was awful” (prison lawyer)

Video can dehumanise the prisoner:

Most communication between people is via body language and tone of voice, rather than by words – a seminal study from 1970 found that all types of non-verbal cues combined, especially body posture, had 4.3 times the effect of verbal cues. Some prison lawyers, parole board members and prisoners think video hampers participation:

“Most of us, I think, are familiar with talking to people face to face, and you know, it’s very intimidating to talk to a judge when your liberty depends on it, and having the video link makes it more intimidating. Having the video link makes it seem less human, it means you feel less able to make your point or even, for example, if you need a break to speak to your solicitor…. I think that, literally I couldn’t hear people as well as you can in real life…So kind of more insecurity, more fears. The practical problem of not being able to hear people all that clearly, I don’t think it’s the main one. I think it’s the distancing, the, you know, that kind of thing” (former prisoner).

I think many of the people whose cases are reviewed by the Parole Board will feel alienated from “The System” and so anything which puts an additional barrier between them and those making a decision about them is regrettable. I don’t think this necessarily makes a difference to the outcome, but it may do to how they perceive the process went” (Parole Board member)

“If I’ve got a probation officer who’s not supporting my client, and they want to appear via telephone link or video-link I say definitely, because I can be more influential with them not in the room” (Prison lawyer).

So why do prisoners choose to take part in video parole hearings?  Simples. They will usually get their hearing earlier if they are willing to go on video and that offers the chance of freedom – release back to community, family and home. And, partly through use of video hearings, parole delays have been reduced radically. Which is fantastic and a credit to current leadership.

The new timeliness of parole hearings offers an opportunity to take a rain-check on video parole hearings.  The Parole Board has some good practice – those with mental health problems or learning disabilities are normally screened out of video hearings in advance, after a considered assessment by parole board members and practitioners; lawyers sit with their clients during the hearing thus preventing isolation; parole board members are saved travel time to far-flung prisons. But can the downsides of video parole hearings be ameliorated?

The parole board is independent. Compared to courts it manages few cases. It could plough its own furrow in terms of video hearings. Why not research the benefits, downsides and outcomes of video and stop/continue as is/adapt based on what you find out?