After Covid prompted the rollout of phones to prisoners, the bosses at Scotland’s jails are looking to unlock the potential of technology

There have always been political controversies around extending technology to people in custody, and the rollout of 7,600 mobile phones across prisons in Scotland has proved no different.

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) came under fire when the so-called “unhackable” devices handed out to prisoners during lockdown were in fact hacked “within hours” of their arrival at Barlinnie in Glasgow and used to buy drugs.

Despite the bad press, Tom Fox, head of corporate affairs, SPS, says the benefits offered by in-cell
telephony “are manifold” for both criminals, their loved ones and prison staff.

And the use of mobiles over the last 18 months has proved so successful, SPS has committed to devise its very first digital strategy to increase and enhance its technological capacity. “When Covid came along, all of a sudden we didn’t have any visits to prisons,” Fox explains.

“We had to look for a broader solution across the entirety of the estate to give people access to telephones in cell, because they were spending more time in cell and there was a limited supply of phones in halls and people of course couldn’t get out to use them in the same way they normally would.”

A digital platform was rapidly implemented to allow people in custody to safely use a phone. The
“fairly low-tech” devices allow prisoners to make outgoing calls to a fully vetted, designated list of telephone numbers. They cannot receive incoming calls and texts, nor access the internet. The new digital infrastructure has created “a lot of opportunities” which the prison service is keen to explore and develop further in its digital strategy.

Fox says: “It’s about considering moving forward, how best we can make use of those technologies to achieve efficiency and effectiveness in our service, but also to the benefit of people in custody and their families.

“It’s also created opportunities to think about ways we can use things like tablets as a way of extending education in cell and other opportunities in cell to prisoners because the pandemic has allowed us to see the benefits of people mixing in smaller numbers and to see that people can use time in cell more profitably.”

As well as the potential for in-cell learning, wider use of technology in prisons could help crack down on contraband, which is usually trafficked via mail going into the institutions.

Fox says: “If you could get to a situation where people had a tablet in cell and could receive an email directly, you could eliminate a lot of that routine mail.”

In addition, someone who has no experience of technology “is at a significant disadvantage” when attempting to reinsert themselves into the community. It is hoped giving people in custody – particularly those who have been incarcerated for a very long time – access to more digital solutions will help prepare them for the working world.

“I suppose our digital strategy moving forward is predicated upon taking advantage of the wonderful opportunities that Covid presented us with,” says Fox.

Speaking at Holyrood’s Criminal Justice Committee in September, Teresa Medhurst, SPS chief executive, said that the new digital strategy will aim to free up time for staff to spend on the relationships that are “critical in supporting rehabilitation and motivating those in custody to take on more of the opportunities that are available to them”.

She added: “We are [working on the digital strategy] to expand the range of opportunities for those in custody to access a wider range of support through technological solutions. Clearly, the most important of those will be access to family. That is a critical and central part of the digital strategy.”

To ensure family contact was maintained during the height of the public health crisis, a “virtual
visit” scheme was rolled out. The service, which allows prisoners to connect with their loved ones
on camera, has “enhanced the nature” of their family relationships.

There is well-established research that shows that the stronger prisoner-family relations are, the more likely it is that incarcerated people will leave custody and will not return, Fox says. The virtual visits have also been transformative for foreign national prisoners, who have “been able to get visits that they never got before”.

Although in-person visits are now back, the virtual visits – which Fox stresses are an “adjunct” and not a substitution – will continue. Other benefits of online video calls that will be explored in the upcoming digital strategy include allowing parents in prisons to attend school parents’ evenings and supporting contact during end-of-life care of a family member.

Laura Van Der Hoeven, head of external engagement at Families Outside, a charity that works on behalf of families affected by imprisonment, said Covid has highlighted the role digital solutions can play to support family contact when a person is in prison.

She said: “While nothing replaces in-person prison visits and giving your family member a hug,
virtual prison visits are able to support family contact in-between visits. The visits have been particularly useful for families who have to travel a long distance to visit their family member in prison.

“The new SPS digital strategy must also reflect the digital poverty gap and poor digital literacy of some families. Families who would like to access a virtual prison visit but do not own a device or have poor wifi connection can contact our Families Outside helpline on 0800 254 0088 or contact their nearest prison visitor centre for support.”

As prisoners have enjoyed closer family contact available from access to mobile phones, SPS has also been working closely with its technological provider and Police Scotland to identify vulnerabilities and seek technological solutions to minimise the security risks of the in-cell telephony scheme.