Families with loved ones in prison in the north-east will be able to see them for the first time in months as “virtual visits” are rolled out.
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has begun to introduce visits via video call, as inmates are unable to receive physical visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Virtual visits in three prisons went live yesterday (Tuesday) – and others, including HMP Grampian, will be added to the scheme before the end of the month.
Families Outside, a charity which supports people with loved ones in prison, welcomed the rollout and said it would improve inmates’ and their relatives’ mental wellbeing.
Lindsay Jessiman, the charity’s head of family support, said: “It’s always hard having loved ones in prison and the separation is really difficult. Prisoners are used to being able to phone home quite regularly but because there’s a different regime at the minute due to Covid-19, they are hardly getting out of their cells.
“Families are very worried about their wellbeing because they’re not getting out to do the things they would normally do. They have not had any way of seeing each other so it is going to be incredible when they can use a device at home to link with someone in prison.
“This is ground-breaking and is something Families Outside has been campaigning for for a long time.
“People don’t always appreciate the wider impact. They think because someone’s done something wrong, they shouldn’t have contact. But their family haven’t done anything wrong, and it’s still their mum, dad, son or daughter, and when you haven’t seen each other in three months that really starts to take its toll.
“All the prisons have already been running virtual court appearances so the technology is essentially there. It’s about making sure the right checks are in place to ensure it can go smoothly.
“A huge number of families live in poverty and having WiFi or devices at home which can be used for the virtual visits will be the next challenge. As a charity we are working very hard to ensure we link them with local charities who can provide that or look for the funding ourselves.
“Lots of people have parents who work away for long periods of time but they are able to text, phone or video call. People with relatives in prison don’t have that.”
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SPS head of corporate affairs Tom Fox said: “I am delighted to announce the first three sites for virtual visits went live on Tuesday, and it is anticipated the rollout will continue over the next two weeks, with every prison in Scotland being able to host visits by the end of June.
“We recognise how important family contact is, both for those in our care and for families and friends in the community.
“While video visits are not a substitute for face-to-face contact, we hope it will help to improve contact between prisoners and their families.”
North-east MSP Liam Kerr – the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow justice minister at Holyrood – said maintaining contact between family members was vital, despite the pandemic.
But he insisted the technology should only be utilised if appropriate security has been put in place.
He said: “In these unprecedented circumstances, contact is important between prisoners and their families who may have concerns during the pandemic.
“Families Outside do valuable work and raise important points but everything must be done to ensure safeguards are in place to prevent the misuse of the technology.
“This is why it’s vital participants are vetted in advance and calls are monitored by prison staff so criminal acts do not occur.
“Restrictions must also be built into the software to ensure safe use within HMP Grampian.”