Following the Government  announcement that all prison visits would be temporarily suspended, some prisons have begun to re-open social visits, with restrictions in place.

For the most up-to-date information, please read the latest government guidance about Coronavirus and prisons which includes a list of other ways to get in touch with prisoners while some visits are still suspended.

Last updated on 5th August 2020.

How many visits is a prisoner allowed?

Visit entitlement can vary from prison to prison and also depends on whether a prisoner is being held on remand or has been convicted. Convicted prisoners are generally allowed 3-4 visits a month but this can increase as the prisoner progresses through the system. Remanded prisoners are allowed a minimum of 90 minutes visiting per week up to a maximum of seven visits per week.

It is always best to check with the prison on the amount of visits a prisoner is allowed, this can be done by phoning the prison directly or you can find prison visiting information on the Justice website or on the Scottish Prison Service website for prisons in Scotland

What is a visiting order (VO) and do I need one?

In England and Wales a visiting order or ‘VO’ is a form completed by the prisoner and sent to the person/s he or she wishes to visit them in prison. A visiting order will have on it the name and address of the person/s visiting, as completed by the prisoner, and a unique reference number which should be used when booking the visit. A visitor should not attempt to add, change or remove any of the information on the visiting order.

Visits to a prisoner on remand do not require that the visitor is in possession of a visiting order but visits to a convicted prisoner do. However, a convicted prisoner is allowed one ‘reception visit’ within the first few days of arriving at prison and this visit does not require a visiting order. Visitors should state they require a reception visit when they phone to book. All visits, whether to a remanded or convicted prisoner, need to be booked.

When can I book my first prison visit?

A prisoner will not be processed and appear on the prison system until the first working day following a court appearance. This is the earliest that someone will be able to telephone to book a visit. All visits need to be booked 24-48 hours in advance (depending on the prison) so there is usually a day or two delay before you can make your first visit. Visits to Category A prisoners may be further delayed due to security clearance by the police. Read more about prisoner categories

How do I book a prison visit?

The Justice website or Scottish Prison Service will tell you what methods to book a visit are in operation at the prison you wish to visit. You can also use the online service to book a prison visit (England and Wales only). 

Most prisons allow bookings to be made by telephone and an increasing number now allow bookings to be made by email. Please bear in mind that there can sometimes be long waiting times when booking visits over the phone.

Some prisons, however, only allow bookings to be made by the prisoner. The prisoner books the visit for their visitors and it is the prisoner’s responsibility to notify their visitors of the date and time of the booking.

When booking a visit via telephone or email you will need to provide details of all the people listed on the visiting order. Only the people named on the visiting order will be allowed to visit. The details required will include names, addresses and dates of birth. People named on the visiting order can choose not to attend but no one can attend in their place. Anyone attending who is not listed on the visiting order will be refused entry to the prison.

Booking a prison visit in Scotland

In Scotland, prisoners’ visits are booked by the prisoners themselves and it’s their responsibility to inform their family or friends of the date and time. They are entitled to no fewer than 2 hours in any 28 day period.

Visits to a prisoner on remand are booked by the prisoner’s family/friends. Remand prisoners may have one 30 minute visit daily. If you visit the SPS prison section you can find direct telephone numbers for each prison.

How many people can visit a prison at once?

Usually a maximum of three adults will be allowed to visit at any one time. The amount of children allowed can vary from establishment to establishment but a child is classed as an adult for seating purposes at 10-12 years old (depending on local policy).

What happens when I first arrive at the prison?

Facilities at prisons will vary but generally on arrival visitors will normally be expected to go to the prison’s visitor centre. Where this facility is available it will generally be a small building situated outside of the prison grounds. On arrival at the visitor centre, (or prison reception where this facility is not available) visitors should have their visiting order checked by staff. Visitors who do not have a visiting order, or who forget their visiting order, will not be allowed entry to the prison regardless of circumstance or distance travelled.

It is important to arrive at the prison at least half an hour prior to the visit time. This allows visitors time to check in with staff, hand any property in, use the facilities (toilets, baby changing, refreshments) and put personal belongings into a locker. No personal belongings can be taken into the visits hall by visitors with the exception of a small amount of money and essential baby items. Visitors should take a pound coin with them on the visit to make use of the locker facility as visitor centre staff are unable to provide change for this purpose. Visitors may be required to show their identification to visitor centre staff, although in a lot of establishments it is prison staff that must see the identification.

What identification do I need to visit a prison?

It is a requirement that all visitors to prisons, including professionals, must have identification and visitors who fail to provide this will be refused entry to the prison. Check with the individual prison to find out what form of identification they require. Some prisons now operate a biometrics system to help identify visitors to the prison. New visitors to each establishment will be required to have their photograph and fingerprints taken which will then be entered onto the prison computer system. From then on, visitors’ finger prints will be scanned as part of the identification process. Finger prints taken in this way are not used for any other purpose.

In addition, every visitor, including babies and children, must also provide another form of approved identification. The identification documents required vary by prison, the list below is a guide only. It is best to phone the establishment you will be visiting to check the local requirements before booking a visit.

Acceptable identification documents generally include one of the following:

  • Passport (including foreign passports. Some establishments will also accept time expired passports where the photograph is still recognisable)
  • Photographic driving licence
  • Employer or student ID (but only if it clearly shows the name of the visitor and if the employer or the education establishment is known to exist)
  • Inland Revenue registration card
  • Senior citizens public transport pass

If the visitor does not have any of the documents on the list above, then they may be allowed entry with two of the following:

  • A birth or marriage certificate
  • A benefits card
  • A rail or bus pass with photograph
  • A cheque book with credit or debit card
  • A young persons proof of age card
  • A trade union or National Union  of Students (NUS) Card
  • A rent book or rent card and statement
  • A tenancy agreement

Acceptable forms of identification (two to be provided) for children aged between 10 years and 17 years are as follows:

  • A family passport
  • A birth certificate
  • Medical card
  • Travel card with photograph
  • A student photographic ID card

A birth certificate will suffice for children under 10 years old. Replacement or copy birth certificates can be obtained from the registry office in the town of birth for a small fee.

Will I be searched when I visit the prison?

From the visitor centre, visitors will make their way to the main prison. Before arriving at the visits hall all visitors will be searched, including babies, children and disabled visitors. Searches will include a pat down/rub down search. Female visitors will only be searched by a female officer but males can be searched by either sex. Male visitors who object to being searched by a female officer on religious or cultural grounds can ask to be searched by a male officer. The search process will also involve metal detectors (similar to those seen at the airport) and sometimes the use of a passive drug detection dog. The dogs used in the detection of drugs at prisons are trained to detect the smell of drugs on a person. They are kept on a lead at all times and will not bark at visitors. If the dog detects the scent of illegal substances it is trained to sit quietly next to the visitor. Visitors who are ‘sat on’ by the dog may be subject to further searches. If no drugs are found then the visitor may be offered a closed visit. If drugs are found the police will be called and the visitor will be arrested. Anyone caught trying to smuggle drugs into a prison will face a ban from the prison and potentially a lengthy prison sentence themselves.

What happens in the prison visits hall?

Once visitors have been searched they will make their way to the visits hall. In some prisons the prisoner will already be seated waiting for his visitors. In other prisons the visitors will be seated first. Seating is dictated by prison staff and security. If there is a security concern regarding a particular prisoner or visitor then they will be seated where they can be best observed. Prisons will generally only allow minimal physical contact at the start and end of each visit, long or passionate embraces or kisses are not permitted and may result in a visit being terminated. Once seated the prisoner is not allowed to leave his seat and move around the visits hall, although visitors can go to the tea bar, toilet or play area. If a visitor needs the toilet, they will be accompanied by an officer and searched before and after they go. If a prisoner needs the toilet then many prisons will terminate the visit.

What facilities are there in the visits hall?

During the visit, where facilities allow, visitors are able to purchase hot and cold drinks and snacks for themselves and their prisoner. The prisoner can only eat these items during the course of visit. Facilities can vary from vending machines to fully staffed canteens or tea bars and products can also vary depending on the security category of the prison.

Many prisons provide play facilities for children under twelve years old, but like everything in the prison system this can vary. Some prisons simply provide a few toys but some have fully staffed and equipped play areas.

Special visits

A lot of prisons are beginning to recognise the value of good quality family time. This benefits the prisoner as well as the family and can contribute to good order and discipline on the wing. The types of special visits that may be offered include:

  • Family visits
  • Lifer’s days
  • Family learning visits

All of these visits give prisoners the chance to spend some quality time with their loved ones in a more relaxed environment and outside the constraints of a normal visit. These visits usually give families the chance to participate in activities and there is often the opportunity to share a meal together.

All the above visits are dependent on a prisoner submitting an application and being subject to the appropriate security clearances.

Prison visit restrictions

People need to be over the age of 18 to visit a prisoner. If a child is visiting then they need to be accompanied by an adult. Governors do have the discretion of allowing people aged 16-18 yrs to visit unaccompanied by an adult with parental consent.

If a prisoner has committed a sexual or violent offence visitors under the age of 18 will not be permitted to visit. In some cases, clearance needs to be granted which can take several months to obtain.

Closed visits

Closed visits are when a prisoner and a visitor are portioned by glass and cannot make physical contact. If the prison suspects that a visitor has tried to smuggle in unauthorized items, then the prisoner may be put on closed visits for a specified length of time and all visitors will have to have a closed visit.

I haven’t received a visiting order

Only one visiting order will be issued per visit so if the people listed on the visiting order live at different address then the lead visitor will receive the visiting order. The prison or visitors centre will be able to tell you if there has been a problem issuing a visiting order.

For more detailed information about specific prisons including:

  • Address
  • Booking line telephone number
  • Public transport information and travel directions
  • Visiting times
  • Prison regime and category

Visit the Justice website for England and Wales or Scottish Prison Service website for prisons in Scotland. 

If you have any questions about visiting arrangements or you are unsure, please call the helpline on 0808 808 2003.