Family contact could help reduce self-harm and suicide in Scottish Prisons

Families Outside, the only charity in Scotland that works solely on behalf of families affected by imprisonment, has shared its hopes on the back of the HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland (HMIPS) inspection at HMP & YOI Polmont.

HMIPS’s report clearly states that increased family contact actively improves reintegration into the community post-release but that it could also help reduce the instances of self-harm and suicide across the prison estate.

The report states, “Family contact is ‘one of the most important areas where actions can be taken to moderate vulnerability and help manage the risk of self-inflicted death’.”

In the report HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, sets out a number of recommendations to develop new facilities that would give people in prison more access to family contact.

She states, “Outwith Scotland, in-cell telephony has had a demonstrable effect in reducing self-harm; it allows victims to speak to family/friends and self-help and advice lines in private and outwith normal hours. HMIPS recommend that the Scottish Government and the SPS introduce this facility in HMP YOI Polmont to help support prisoners who feel vulnerable.”

In December 2018, a report from Independent think tank Reform Scotland stated that In-cell telephony would “help prisoners’ rehabilitation.”  At the time the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) said it had no current plans to introduce them, despite previous calls for in-cell phones in Scotland made by Colin McConnell, Chief Executive of SPS, in 2013.

Nancy Loucks, Chief Executive at Families Outside said, “Research shows that by creating stronger ties with families, people in prison are up to six times less likely to reoffend. This latest recommendation from the HMIPS to introduce in cell phones is incredibly welcome, as it allows people in prison to have more confidential and meaningful contact with their families. If this recommendation is implemented, it will have a profound impact on the mental health of people in prison as well as giving families some much needed assurance.”

HMIPS also cites the need to make ‘virtual visits’ more available, highlighting that in HMP YOI Polmont “video-link facilities to develop family contact were available; however, the only link up provided was to Aberdeen through [third sector partners] Apex. This should be expanded to provide a more inclusive service for all.”

This recommendation is also linked with Council of Europe Recommendations which state:

“In accordance with national law and practice, the use of information and communication technology (video-conferencing, mobile and other telephone systems, internet, including webcam and chat functions, etc.) shall be facilitated between face-to-face visits and should not involve excessive costs. Imprisoned parents shall be assisted with the costs of communicating with their children if their means do not allow it. These means of communication should never be seen as an alternative which replaces face-to-face contact between children and their imprisoned parents.”

Video-link facilities, also referred to as Virtual Visits, are being run from Aberdeen through Apex Scotland, but families are only able to speak to prisoners in Barlinnie, Perth, Polmont, and Grampian.

Kerry Knox, Head of Service for Prison Visitors’ Centres in Scotland, said “Apex Scotland has already demonstrated the benefits of virtual visits for families who live large distances from their loved one in prison. Unfortunately it is limited to families based in Aberdeen. However, HMP Inverness’ Visitors’ Centre, which is run by Action for Children, is working with the SPS to trial the technology which allows people in Inverness to use virtual visits to maintain contact with prisons all over Scotland. It is our hope that, when SPS launches their Digital Strategy, they acknowledge the value of Visitors’ Centres as a potential resource to help deliver this service which would allow families to maintain contact irrespective of their location and without the cost or time implications of travelling huge distances for physical visits.”

Twelve out of Scotland’s fifteen prisons have an onsite visitor’s centre, which are all run by independent charities. Visitors’ Centres provide families with onsite support and are seen as a crucial service for the families using them.

In the HMP YOI Polmont Report, HMIPS states that “The process for admitting visitors was friendly and informative, with Crossreach operating a family visitor centre on a bus that sat at the front entrance to the establishment. Staff working in the visit area were engaging, polite, well-mannered and sensitive to all visitors, whilst ensuring the security needs of the prison were adhered to at all times. There were plans to redevelop the visitors waiting area to allow Crossreach to deliver their service from there, which was seen as a positive move.”

The ‘bus’ has now been removed, and the Visitors’ Centre is operating from within the prison, over the secure line, despite a strong call from inspectors who said, “HMP YOI Polmont has perhaps the strongest case in Scotland for the provision of a purpose built, well-resourced family visitors centre.”

Nancy Loucks, Chief Executive of Families Outside, said, “This report from HMIPS has uncovered a great number of issues at HMP YOI Polmont, most of which can be addressed by properly engaging with families. Families are well-placed to know someone’s normal patterns of behaviour, to identify triggers, and to recognise when something is wrong. They are therefore crucial partners in the prevention of self-harm and suicide. The SPS needs to ensure that they liaise closely with families, consulting with them regarding their loved one’s health, and working with third sector partners to provide the best possible support for people in their care.”

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