Can crisis change our prisons?

Most of us don’t change until we have to, and crisis is often what obliges us to do so. Crises are often resolved only through a new identity and new purpose, whether it’s that of a nation or a single human being ― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

The idea that crisis can lead to positive change pervades our cultural imagination, and since the outbreak of COVID 19, many may have found comfort and purpose in the sentiment expressed in the quotation above. 

However, when it comes to prisons, the links between crisis and reform are highly contested. As critical criminologists such as David Scott and Joe Sim argue, prisons have always been damaging to those held within them, and therefore each generation of politicians will face its own prisons crisis, with the outbreak of COVID 19 being just the latest example. 

Indeed, is not so many years ago that Scotland faced a profound period of prisons crisis. The mid 1980s were a time of significant overcrowding, conflict and unrest in Scottish prisons, characterised by serious disturbances, roof-top occupations, dirty protests and industrial action. In 1987, fears that the government response to this unrest was insufficient led to the formation of Independent Inquiry into events at Peterhead prison. The findings of the Inquiry, which was led by a team including Jimmy Boyle, Alistair Duff, Phil Scraton and Joe Sim, were published in the report The Roof Comes Off

In this blog we outline how many of the issues facing families today were also raised in the Roof Comes Off inquiry more than 30 years ago. This helps us to see what has changed (or not) for families affected by imprisonment, and raises important questions as to whether or not prisons as institutions are capable of meaningful reform in the face of adversity. 

Barriers to regular contact 

The Roof Comes Off reported that families found the journey to the remote Peterhead prison to be long and exhausting. These trips frequently took many hours, often on multiple forms of public transport. The financial cost could be a significant barrier to visiting, and while some financial assistance was available, the report noted that this was limited and could be humiliating to claim.

Prior to the outbreak of COVID 19, these difficulties for families persisted. The most recent SPS Prisoner Survey found nearly half of those in custody (47%) reported problems in receiving visits, due to distance, cost, lack of public transport, lack of childcare and the general stress of visiting. While families on low incomes may access financial supports, they must pay all these expenses first, and then wait to claim this money back. This stretches already limited budgets, and disadvantages the many families affected by imprisonment who are already living in poverty. 

The advance of technology offers opportunities to relieve some of these burdens, and ‘email a prisoner’ schemes, virtual-visits and regular phone contact can be a valued means of contact. The accessibly of these technologies to people in prison is crucial, as fifteen years ago criminologists Alison Liebling and Shadd Maruna warned of “a growing dissonance between an increasingly connected world and the particular capacity of the prison to ‘cut off’”[i].

The outbreak of COVID 19 not only highlights this continued dissonance, but brings an urgent need for action. In a recent speech, Nicola Sturgeon emphasised the importance of family to all citizens, explaining that she also missed hers, and thanking children because “not being at school, or seeing your friends, or hugging your grandparents is really tough”. Yet while families in the community make increasing use of the internet and video calls to stay in contact, eight weeks after visit to prison were suspended, families affected by imprisonment still await a technical solution to facilitate regular contact. This is despite an announcement last week that video visits are to rolled out in prisons in England and Wales

That the only universal measure to be introduced to all prisons in Scotland to support family ties has been an extra £2.50 a week to buy phone credit to use phones on prison landings highlights the reliance on ‘traditional’ technologies, and the lack of infrastructure to support families to continue to communicate in the ways they would at home. The Scottish Government has sought to address this lack of infrastructure by providing people in custody with heavily restricted mobile phones, but again, families are still waiting for these to be made available. These delays inevitably raise questions as to whether earlier investment in modern technologies to support family contact in meaningful and accessible ways (for instance, facilities for video visits and in-cell phones) would have avoided the very difficult circumstances families affected by imprisonment now find themselves in. 

The quality of family contact 

In the Roof Comes Off, the Inquiry Team were strongly critical of the Peterhead visiting room, noting that the booths in the visiting room were made up of a “fixed wooden base topped with glass to prevent easy physical contact”. They argued strongly for more relaxed visiting conditions which would allow families to spend quality time together, which they describe as including: easy physical contact, taking photographs together, sharing meals, and exchanging gifts at Christmas, birthdays, and other significant events. 

This is an area where there has been some progress, particularly in terms of the material setting for visits. The SPS has made considerable investments in modernising the prison estate, and is working towards providing Visitors’ Centres (for families to wait, access information and seek support) at all prisons. Prior to the suspension of visits, improvements in the services available to families have also seen the introduction of more relaxed visiting sessions for children, family fun days, and homework clubs, and other similar projects. However, concerns remain that these are primarily aimed towards families with young children, and that these more relaxed visits still represent a minority of visiting sessions. Those attending ‘regular’ visits will do so in more modern rooms, but which are often busy, loud, lacking in privacy, and which have tables and chairs fixed the floor. 

The 1987 report also documented profound difficulties faced by people in prison and their families when attempting to maintain relationships in meaningful ways. For instance, when ordering supplies from the prison canteen, should limited prison wages be spent to buy tobacco, stamps or toothpaste? What should families do when they find that the person has been moved to a different prison without notice, or that their phone messages go unanswered? Again, these issues persist, with familiesresearchers and charities in Scotland and across the UK noting that families face considerable challenges in maintaining regular contact and navigating prison systems. Low prison wages contribute to these difficulties, and ‘rationing’ deodorant to pay for phone credit remains a painful reality for some people in prison today. 

As the 1987 Inquiry report notes, issues of this sort stem from both the complexity of prison systems and a lack of flexibility when the needs of families conflict with the prison’s working practices. The steps which have been taken so far to maintain family contact throughout the COVID crisis suggests that this fundamental power imbalance between families and the prison persists. Measures which may benefit families, but will also reduce the administrative burden on institutions (such as the ability to pay in money electronically, a dedicated family helpline and an online FAQ), are now in place. However, those that will support quality contact, such as mobile phones and video visits have not, as yet, materialised. 

Crisis and Reform?

So what has changed for families since the publication of The Roof Comes Off back in 1987, and what might these two periods of crisis teach us? We suggest that the ill-effects of imprisonment for many families are not only inherent to this form of punishment, but they are also enduring. The last three decades have seen some improvements in services and facilities, but the fundamental power that the prison has to separate families, dictate what contact is permitted, incur costs for visits, monitor communication and subject families to other intrusive security procedures remain unchanged. 

Consequently, there is an urgent need for action to better support families affected by imprisonment. In the current crisis, we must all work towards:

  • The introduction of technologies to facilitate video (and other virtual) forms of contact. 
  • A transparent conversation around the challenges of utilising these technologies in a prison setting, and how this might be overcome. 
  • Opportunities for families and people in prison to be part of these discussions. 
  • The publication by the Scottish Government and SPS of clear timeline of when virtual contact will be introduced.

Going forward, such efforts can support a fundamental shift toward prioritising the quality of family contact, even when this is burdensome to the institution, or difficult or challenging to achieve. When it is safe for visits to resume, there must be an urgency around sustaining and improving recent positive initiatives to support families. This might include: 

  • A greater role for Family Contact Officers, and efforts to ensure groups who might particularly benefit from their support (for instance, those on remand) can access this. 
  • A continuation and extension of activities such as homework clubs, shared meals, family days and other initiatives which prioritise high-quality contact.
  • Engagement with a range of organisations to ensure a programme of activities is available to support all family ties, not just those between parents and young children. 
  • Regular consultation with families themselves, to find out what might best meet their needs. 
  • Greater opportunities to learn from projects or initiatives which have been particularly successful.

That many of these suggestions closely resonate with the recommendations made in The Roof Comes Off over three decades ago is deeply troubling, and challenges notions that when it comes to prisons, adversity might, in of itself, speed up progressive reform. It will be vital, then, that the impact of the COVID crisis on family contact for families affected by imprisonment is closely monitored and, like in the Peterhead Inquiry, that families themselves are central to this process. 


[i] Liebling, A. and Maruna, S. (2005) The Effects of Imprisonment, Abbington: Routledge. 

One thought on “Can crisis change our prisons?

  1. Pingback: Scottish Prisoner Advocacy and Research Collective (SPARC) submission to the Scottish Parliament Equalities and Human Rights Committee – Scottish Prisoner Advocacy & Research Collective (SPARC)

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