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The beginning of better provision for parents in prison

Professor Nancy Loucks, Chief Executive of Families Outside, on new government funding to support virtual visits and how this could be just the beginning of better provision for parents in prison. 

You don’t have to look very far to find something that has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is equally true for the children and families affected by imprisonment we support at Families Outside. 

As Scotland went into lockdown last March, people with a friend or family member in prison lost vital communication with them. All visits were suspended, and lockdown prison regimes restricted the time available to access hall telephones – assuming they would even wish to risk using them in the middle of a pandemic. 

Families Outside has been campaigning for many years to introduce technology such as video (‘virtual’) visits and in-cell telephony to aid family contact. Decision-makers accepted that, at some point, the technology would be put in place  some people suggested within a few years, and others within a decade. But as thousands of families lost contact, virtual visits and in-cell telephony were two crucial solutions to help families maintain contact during COVID restrictions and to assuage their related anxieties for the health and wellbeing of people in prison. 

The introduction of virtual visits and in-cell telephony has made a huge difference to the children and families we support. The benefits for families and those in prison are clear, especially for very young children for whom letters and phone calls are meaningless, and for families who struggle to travel through distance, ill health, or financial constraints. While virtual communication can never replace the joy of seeing a parent or loved one in person and giving them a hug, it can bridge the gap and support family contact. 

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and Scottish Government are understandably still focused on responding to the pandemic and tackling the challenges that face the justice system. We are nevertheless receiving positive signs that these new technologies are here to stay for the long-term as an additional method of contact.  

Virtual visits and in-cell telephony have huge potential to support family contact if prisons can embrace them and expand how they are used. For example, they could enable parents in prison to take part more easily in children’s hearings or parent-teacher consultations. A child shouldn’t face punishment when they have done nothing wrong, but imprisonment and limits on contact can feel like a punishment for them. Virtual visits could be used to help the parent in prison and the child share the successes and the achievements of parents' evenings but also to stay involved for events such as medical appointments. Other countries use video links for funerals and births as well. 

This is just the beginning of our ambition for embedding this technology to support family contact. 

Prison Visitor Centres are now offering access to support and hosting virtual visits. This will help to support families that have no access to a device or connection or who struggle to work the technology to take up a virtual visit. This new service was possible because of funding from the Scottish Government to provide the resources to Prison Visitor Centres across Scotland to support and host virtual visits – another sign of the support and recognition from the SPS and Scottish Government that virtual visits have a role to play in maintaining family contact now and in the future.  

If you are interested in learning more about the issues and challenges facing children and families affected by imprisonment in Scotland, Families Outside has recently launched new accredited training modules.

Click here for more information

About the author

Professor Nancy Loucks is Chief Executive Officer of Families Outside

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