Virtual visits are crucial for the mental wellbeing of families affected by imprisonment

Families Outside, the only national charity in Scotland working exclusively on behalf of families affected by imprisonment, welcomes the Scottish Prison Service’s plans to introduce video visits, with Scotland finally acting in compliance with the recommendations from the Council of Europe and UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

According to Nancy Loucks, chief executive, “Visits to prisons have been suspended, and any contact families are able to make with their loved ones has become extremely challenging. For families, maintaining contact with people in prison is one of the most stabilising activities they can undertake, improving mental health and reducing anxiety. Lockdown has been hard on all areas of society, but almost all other groups will have had the means of making contact with their loved ones; not so for families affected by imprisonment. This loss of face-to-face contact and restrictions placed on getting things such as money or items into prisons have resulted in families feeling a sense of disconnect, hopelessness, and potential loss.”

Lindsay Jessiman, head of family support at the charity, said:  “Calls to our Helpline over March and April have increased by 126% when compared to the same period last year, and we’re encountering greater calls relating to emotional wellbeing and concern for people in prison than ever before.”

One family member highlighted her concerns to the charity, saying: “I understand visits are suspended at the minute. However, with my fiancé being my only support network, my mental health is beginning to deteriorate as you can imagine without being able to see him. I haven’t seen him in over 2 months [now 3 months]. So far this year I have lost 3 family members, 2 of which have funerals this week which of course due to Covid-19 I am unable to attend. I’m struggling to cope without my partner and vice versa. I worry for his mental health as well as my own.”

Last week it was reported that the SPS was introducing video visits in HMP Cornton Vale, HMP Shotts and HMP/YOI Polmont. Since that announcement, the SPS has faced further delays, with the first visits now taking place on Tuesday 16th June, despite starting the process in April.

Loucks said, “We understand how difficult a change of this magnitude will be for the SPS and that such change takes time. We also understand that such a move will be unpopular to some members of the public, who may see the move as ‘soft justice’ – but families affected by imprisonment are not guilty and deserve the same access to their families as anyone else.”

One family member explained, “All I read is negativity on social media.  If someone writes about the effects COVID is having on prisoners, I see comments like “they don’t deserve rights, they should have thought about that before breaking the law”. Well what about prisoners that have not been convicted that await trial like my partner?  The prisoners are human beings that still have family and friends that love and care about them.  I worry about the effects this must be having on the prisoners and how this is affecting their mental health, being locked up for 23 hours a day like caged animals with minimal interaction, no stimulation.”

Families Outside has been campaigning for the use of Virtual Visits for some time and is extremely supportive of the move.

However, the charity is concerned that some family members might not have the physical hardware, the data, or even the knowledge of the technology to undertake the visits.

The organisation is preparing for the launch of Virtual Visits by identifying funding that can be used to provide data top-ups, possible hardware, and their Helpline and Regional Teams will be available to provide support with any issues that families may be facing.

For more information, please contact their Helpline on 0800 254 0088.

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