This article by Alison Payne first appeared in issue 16 of Scottish Policy Now.
Prison exists for four key reasons – punishment, deterrence, public safety and rehabilitation. However, the fourth – rehabilitation – does not always receive the attention it deserves. Rehabilitating prisoners and preventing re-offending is important not just for the prisoner, but also for his or her family and for society as a whole.
In 2016/17 3,495 people were sent to prison for a period of less than three months, despite there being presumption against such short sentences. When automatic release is then taken into account, 7,954 individuals, nearly two thirds of all people sent to jail last year, spent less than three months in prison.
With people serving such short sentences, but not able to access rehabilitation programmes, it is imperative that other ways of helping reduce reoffending are considered. Evidence suggests that maintaining close family ties is one such way. However, due to distance or circumstance some family members will be unable to see or speak to their loved one as often as they’d like, if at all. Even if travel and transport are not a problem, prison rules also place restrictions on the frequency and duration of visits. If family contact, where appropriate, helps reduce reoffending, as well as helping those on the outside, then it is something that should be encouraged.
The UK Government is allowing thousands more prisoners in England and Wales to be able to make phone calls from their cells as part of a drive to reduce violence and reoffending. UK Justice Secretary David Gauke commented:
“In-cell telephones provide a crucial means of allowing prisoners to build and maintain family relationships, something we know is fundamental to their rehabilitation. Introducing them to more prisons is a recognition of the contribution I believe in-cell telephones make to turning prisons into places of decency where offenders have a real chance to transform their lives.”
Reform Scotland has called for a similar scheme to be piloted in Scotland. Currently prisoners here have to queue to use public phones within the prisons, which can be a trigger for violence and intimidation.
The current phone system works on a credit basis and payment comes from prisoners personal cash account, wages and savings or from money from friends and family. Prisoners are issued with a PIN number to access an outside line and are only allowed to call numbers on their list of numbers of family, friends and legal contacts. We believe that this system could be used for landlines in cells, not just the phones in the corridors.
We challenge the Scottish Prison Service and the Scottish Government to be bold and innovative as we try to close the revolving door of reoffending.