The coronavirus (COVID-19) has fundamentally changed life for all of us, threatening the health, wellbeing and lives of people around the world.
In these unprecedented times governments across the UK and internationally have had to take difficult decisions, including within our systems of justice to help combat, curtail, and control the spread of the virus.
In response to COVID-19, in March 2020, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) suspended in-person visits in all of the country’s 15 prisons.
This was a difficult but necessary decision to help reduce spread of the virus in the vulnerable setting of prisons and to protect the health and safety of prison and NHS staff, as well as those in custody.
Nothing will ever replicate physical visits but during these challenging times, phones have become a vital lifeline.
The introduction of mobile phones as well as video-conferencing technology was a key solution, but a very challenging one which has involved much work to overcome legal, logistical and technological barriers.
The public would rightly expect appropriate safeguards be put in place, and they have been, with the same restrictions used for the current prison landline system being implemented for the handsets.
For example, outgoing calls can be recorded and monitored and are only possible to numbers already included on existing prisoner call lists. The phones are not text- or internet-enabled, nor able to receive incoming calls.
It is perhaps apt that focus has turned to in-cell phones in recent days, as we mark Prisoners Week 2020 – with this year’s theme being ‘Not Alone’, to highlight the essential support available both for people in custody and their loved-ones.
The rationale for maintaining family contact and the benefits this brings for those in custody and to their children and families and other close networks is well-known.
Strong family networks can help in reducing reoffending and aid resettlement into the community.
As well as family contact, these phones also improve the access that people in our care have to contact a number of support services directly, such as the Samaritans. This is essential at any time but particularly so during a pandemic, given the necessary public health restrictions in prisons.
Calls for an alternative means for family contact to in-person visits are not new and pre-date the pandemic – with Reform Scotland among those highlighting the benefits for inmates, their families and wider society.
Prior to COVID-19, people in prison and their families reported significant difficulties with some of the distances required to travel to prisons and a lack of public transport, cost, accessibility, and scheduling of prison in-person visits.
Last November, following an independent review by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, I asked the Scottish Prison Service to explore the options for implementing a pilot of in-cell phones at HMP YOI Polmont, with necessary controls in place.
It was clear that facilitating more contact between those in prison and their families could improve an individual’s mental health.
Before the pandemic prisoners in Scotland could access telephones in communal areas only at certain times.
In-cell phones have the potential to contribute to prisoners’ wellbeing by making family contact significantly easier.
They also have the benefit of improving access to national helpline services and technology can offer the potential to develop tele-health services and other supports for wellbeing in prisons.
Our earlier plans were overtaken by the urgent need to introduce mobile phones and virtual visits across the entire estate as a result of suspending in-person visits.
From June, video-conferencing technology was deployed across every prison while authorised mobile phones were also rolled out in all establishments – with the exception of HMP Kilmarnock which installed its own in-cell telephones – to maintain vital family contact.
More than 7,500 mobile phones have been distributed to those in SPS care and to date there have been more than 532,000 calls made from these devices, alongside around 12,500 virtual visits to stay in touch with children, parents, partners and other loved-ones.
Given the limitations around in-person visits I intend that these methods of communication will continue to be used as an important means of maintaining family contact while the prison service continues to adapt and take appropriate measures in the face of the continuing uncertainty and challenges caused by the virus.
Supplementing in-person visits with phone calls or video visits is consistent with previous recommendations made by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2012 and the Council of Europe in 2018.
Parental imprisonment is recognised as an adverse childhood experience. For those affected children the stigma, psychological distress, economic and social disadvantage, and the widespread disruption to their lives can be profound and lifelong. 
The ability to digitally connect with a parent in prison offers vital family contact which can be important for children in terms of their development, including educational attainment, social inclusion and mental health.
We cannot underestimate the value of a parent in prison being able to read their child a story or provide emotional support to their family at these challenging times.
The phased rollout of mobile phones across the prison estate began in June and was completed in early September. A large and complex project, it involved the installation of signal boosting technology, large scale procurement along with technology fixes to ensure the appropriate safety measures would exist on the handsets.
The approximate cost of this initial phase of the mobile phone project – including installing all necessary infrastructure, meeting set-up costs, running costs and the handsets themselves – is around £2.7 million.
While some have commented negatively on this sum, many of those who understand effective penal systems will see this investment in the broader context of the overall costs of maintaining, safe, stable prison regimes – where conditions are conducive to and supportive of successful rehabilitation.
Our long-standing, strategic approach to penal policy in Scotland, not diverted by short-termism or political opportunism, is one that has helped drive down the country’s reconviction rate to its lowest level since comparable records began. And of course, less re-offending has contributed to keeping crime down and communities safe. Smart justice, not soft justice. Less crime, fewer victims.
In-cell phones are used elsewhere, of course. Indeed the UK Government announced the roll out of 900 secure phone handsets in March, with Minister of State Lucy Frazer QC stating: “It is therefore right and proportionate that we provide other, controlled ways for them to stay in touch so that they can maintain the close bonds that will ultimately reduce their chances of reoffending when they are released.”
The roll out of authorised mobile phones and virtual visits has been welcomed by Scotland’s independent HM Inspector of prisons, who in her recent annual report said: “I am delighted to see the introduction of in-cell telephony and virtual visits coming to fruition, which provides much needed alternative family contact capability. This is a step forward in Scotland’s enlightened approach to penology.”
I am extremely grateful to Scotland’s hard working prison staff and management who have worked at pace to ensure the use of mobile phones and virtual visits in prisons is practical and safe – benefiting those in custody, their families, and the wider communities from where they come.
Humza Yousaf MSP is the Cabinet Secretary for Justice