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. 

SPARC statement on COVID 19 – Friday 27 March 2020

  1. SPARC is deeply troubled about the lack of speed and clarity about the response to Covid 19 in Scottish prisons. While the pandemic is evolving rapidly, we remain concerned that the response from the SPS and Scottish Government has not. There appears to have been little meaningful progress since our statement of Tuesday 17th March, where we outlined serious concerns and made a number of urgent recommendations, not least the call for publication of a clear, detailed plan.
  1. We would view a satisfactory plan as one that includes: information for families about testing, isolation protocols for the unwell (including how family can receive updates on those isolated); details of modes and frequency of maintaining family contact; appropriate and specific policies applying to different prisons given distinct populations (such as much older age groups in Glenochil, mixed gender and ages in other prisons); accessible and accurate information about crowding and issues in establishments, such as the availability of phones, soap, hand sanitiser and other toiletries for all prisoners regardless of income.
  1. The need for action could not be more urgent given the current crisis inside Scottish prisons, which provides a perfect environment for the virus to spread. Prisons are overcrowded, and prison numbers significantly above the estate’s operational capacity. Many people held in Scottish prisons suffer poor health, and are consequently more likely to be vulnerable to the virus. Yet, there is little space to self-isolate, as many prisoners are already sharing a cell.
  1. Further, self-isolating in a prison environment may be detrimental to mental health, which is already a particular concern in prison, as we know contact with family and other supportive individuals can protect against the risk of suicide. This point has been unaddressed in official responses to date.
  1. On Monday 23rd, it was announced that visits would be suspended from the following day. However, other than publicising that a help-line for families would be available from Friday 26th, there has been no information shared with families as to how they can keep in contact. On Tuesday 24th, the Justice Secretary noted that family contact is “crucial” and acknowledged that: “We know that technology exists elsewhere in relation to mobile phones that have restricted call lists, and we are looking at other measures such as videoconferencing.” Yet despite this acknowledgement that the technology exists, there has as yet been no action here. Meaningful measures to support family contact must be introduced urgently.
  1. There are short-term low risk prisoners, as well as long-term prisoners at the end of their sentence, all of whom could be released on HDC. And this would free up space needed to reduce the harm caused by Covid 19 inside Scottish prisons. Both prison staff and families of prisoners have contacted SPARC to express their distress at the current handling of the situation. The Scottish government need to make the brave but also the socially just decision to release these prisoners. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.

Too late, too vague – where is the detailed transparent COVID-19 plan for Scottish prisons? A disaster waiting to happen

Yesterday it was confirmed that two people in prison at HMP Kilmarnock were in self-isolation with the first suspected cases of Coronavirus in prisons in Scotland. Meanwhile, down south a prison officer at HMP High Down was diagnosed with the virus. This is terrifying for those who are trapped inside and for their families and friends outside.

A late plan, and poor communication for prisoners and their families, staff or the public. For those watching the rapid spread of the coronavirus, both from within and outwith prison walls, this moment was inevitable. However, despite its clear inevitability, there is currently no clear transparent plan in place from the Scottish government regarding how people living and working in prison will be protected. Until today there had been a deafening silence from the Scottish Prison Service both publicly and internally. Reports from those inside suggest that information for both people living and working in prison has been very poor, which adds to the fear. When a statement was finally released today, this offered only vague assurances, which fail to address the specifics of the prison setting.

Scottish prisons are among the most crowded, creating ‘perfect’ conditions for rapid spread of Covid-19. At 150 people per 100,000 of the population, Scotland’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in Europe. As of the 13th March there were 8,094 people in Scottish prisons (SPS, 2020), significantly higher than the operational capacity of 7,676 (Audit Scotland, 2019). When the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT, 2019) visited Scottish prisons in 2018, they found that people living in Barlinnie had less then 3m2 each of living space, and in HMP Grampian mattresses had been placed on the floors under bunk beds, to turn double cells into triple occupancy. Conditions in the cells in Barlinnie, especially in the Admissions Unit, were described as dirty and cramped (pp.30-32).

Those in prison are especially at risk of worse outcomes of Covid-19. It is well-established that people in prison experience poorer physical health than the general population. The UK government guidance published on 16th March identifies a number of ‘vulnerable’ groups, and people in prison find themselves over-represented within some of these groups. Data from 2007 identified 12% of people in Scottish prisons as having asthma, compared to 5% of the general population (Graham, 2007). The same report estimates a high proportion of Hepatitis C among people in prison (20%), and a higher rate of liver problems due to alcohol use. While HMP Low Moss yesterday asked volunteers not to come into the prison for at least three weeks, in others it appears to have been business as usual, with education and other events which involve the flow of people back and forth through the prison gates continuing as normal.

Self-isolating is difficult and particularly dangerous for those in prison. The physical and emotional toll of isolation within prison is well-established, so the Government advice given to those in the community presents risks to those in prison. People in prison are at increased risk of death from suicide, and there have been a number of high profile deaths of young people in Scottish prisons in recent years. Recent research emphasised that less isolation and more access to family were crucial for the wellbeing of young people in custody, but both of these are likely to be highly limited in the current context (Armstrong and McGhee, 2019). Without any clear strategies for managing the pandemic in prison, the default approach likely is to just bang up people in their cells.

Reducing visits risks prison order. With the likelihood of reduced or cancelled visits, this is hugely concerning and dangerous. Family visits are precious, and both the direct and indirect impact of limiting these can be significant. In Italy, when significant restrictions were placed on visits as part of measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, this contributed to riots within the prisons, which resulted in the death of 12 people (The Independent, 13 March 2020). The risk of instability inside the prison is yet another concern for those in prison and their families.

Staffing levels and sick leave in Scottish prisons are critical. As well as direct measures taken by the prison to limit these, there will also be knock-on effects of staff shortages as a result of self-isolation and sickness. SPS is not well-equipped to manage this, as sickness absence has already been identified by Audit Scotland as one of key pressures placing the estate at increasing risk of failure. There has been a rise in sickness absence of over 60% in the last three years (Audit Scotland, 2019), with 40,522 working days lost to sickness between 1 January and 24 July 2019 alone (SPS, 2019).

Without action, court delays could increase the time people spend in prison. There are currently well over a thousand (1,317) untried people in Scottish prisons, with another 311 awaiting sentence. These people ‘on remand’ in prison are rightly concerned that any court closures will mean substantial delays to their cases, which could significantly extend the period of time that they spend in prison, despite not having been convicted or sentenced. As well as those on remand, there are a number of people in Scottish prisons who are awaiting removal or deportation. At end of December 2019, there were 42 people being held in Dungavel immigration removal centre (SDV, 2020). These people are not serving a sentence for any crime.

We are seeing now the cost of high prison populations. Now is the time to urgently reduce the prison population. In Ireland, we understand that consideration is being given to early release for some groups (RTE, 13th March 2020). Similar rumours have also emerged about England and Wales, with the head of the Prison Officers’ Association reported by Sky News as saying that everything was on the table (Sky News, 15th March 2020). It has been reported by the BBC today that in England and Wales, the Home Detention Curfew scheme will be extended so that people can spend the final six months of the custody part of their sentence in the community on tag (up from the current arrangements of four and a half months).

The SPS and Scottish Government need to offer clear, effective and supportive positions, and SPARC demands, at a minimum:

A clear and detailed statement from the SPS on its Covid-19 policy, available to the public and communicated immediately to all staff and all imprisoned people and their families.

Urgent and maximum expansion of HDC release for prisoners including automatic HDC for anyone in the last six months of their sentence, as is under consideration in England and Wales.

Presumption of bail for all those accused; immediate release of those on remand as default excepting only those charged with murder, rape and domestic abuse.

Immigration authorities and the UK government should exercise powers to release those in immigration detention, and support should be provided for those with nowhere to go.

Postponement of all community sentences, following the lead of the Netherlands to modify community sentences.

End the mobile phone ban now – emergency suspension of criminal prohibition on phones, and until this is implemented, prisoners should be given unlimited credit to make phone calls to loved ones.

No questions asked policy and immediate access for prisoners to speak by phone to qualified mental health professional or service.

Acquire and make use of iPads and tablets for video visits in all prisons and for all prisoners.

Free stamps and stationery provided to prisoners and families.

Continued access to exercise and outdoors for all those in prison.

A clear protocol for emergency medical attention for those unwell in prison.

Direct involvement of prisoners co-creating strategies to support wellbeing – this may involve letting prisoners suggest ideas, self-organise their own staggered access to activities and association.