16th April 2020

By Dr Kirsty Deacon, University of Strathclyde

There are currently 7,339 people in prison in Scotland. Almost all will have family members, whether more traditional nuclear family, wider extended family, or non-blood relations who fulfil this role.

While the current lockdown is not comparable to serving a prison sentence, it does, perhaps, give us some idea of how it must feel to be kept apart from those that we love, and to have our contact with them restricted. This is a difficult and worrying time for all families, particularly those who can’t be together. For those with a member in prison these difficulties and worries are amplified. Prison has been described as a “petri dish for infection” with the warning that without protective measures we could see 800 deaths within the UK prison estate, and 10th April saw the first reported death from Covid-19 in a Scottish prison.

Outside of prison, how we deal with physical separation is partly through other forms of contact, but this is not straightforward for those with a family member serving a sentence. They are unable to easily and regularly check on their imprisoned family member’s wellbeing.

Prison has been described as a “petri dish for infection” with the warning that without protective measures we could see 800 deaths within the UK prison estate

From 24th March all prison visits were stopped. The Scottish Prison Service has recognised the impact of this, and are looking at other contact options. They have requested Email-a-Prisoner charges are waived, are introducing the Prison Voicemail service across all prisons and are working towards providing prisons with mobile phones. They are also providing all prisoners with £2.50 a week phone credit. While this is a good start, much more is needed.

Many have questioned whether these changes go far enough. SPARC have called for the provision of free stationery and tablets for video-calls, with the Prison Reform Trust also calling for the introduction of virtual visits (recent reviews have already been calling for this). Video calls are now possible from all prisons in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and non-internet enabled mobile phones have already been introduced in some English prisons.

There are cost and access issues. The high cost of calls from prisons means that the extra £2.50 represents less than 20 minutes of calls to a mobile each week. Families will therefore need to make up the shortfall. With the prison population being drawn disproportionately from more deprived areas, the heightened worry and wish to remain in contact is likely to create further monetary pressure for already struggling families. On top of this, money can now only be sent in to prisons or paid in through a new online system. Levels of digital inequality within society mean that not everyone will be able to take advantage of this service. The same will apply to the Email-a-Prisoner scheme.


Image: Pexels

Prisoners’ access to telephones is also an issue. While around 60% of the prison estate in England and Wales has in-cell telephony, access to telephones within Scottish prisons is only available on communal landing areas. The time prisoners have to access telephones has always been restricted, but regime changes due to Covid-19 mean this is harder than ever. Prisoners can find themselves within their cells for 23 hours a day, or unable to access services over the weekend. Choices have to be made about whether to use the phone or have a shower. Families are also balancing the worry of not hearing from a family member with their risk of infection from using a telephone where multiple prisoners are using the same handset.

Families of prisoners already experience what has been termed “secondary prisonisation”. This lack of control over some aspects of their lives will be exacerbated by the current situation. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill introduced the possibility of early prisoner release on 1st April but as yet this provision has not been used. While it clearly takes time to put plans in place around prisoner release this added uncertainty will be felt by families. One particular source of anxiety will involve new arrangements for release under lockdown. Release and resettlement can be a stressful time for families regardless, but where prisoners are released, it will often be to family homes with little support.

Children in particular can be significantly affected by the imprisonment of a family member. For them, the increased stress from the current situation will simply be adding to these detrimental effects.


These issues do not even begin to take into account the experiences of those simultaneously serving a prison sentence along with a family member, whether in the same or a different establishment.

The only way to truly deal with the potential catastrophe within prisons is to drastically reduce prisoner numbers, as has been made clear by academics and penal reform organisations. In the meantime we must remember, and do more to support, the families of those currently serving sentences. And when this pandemic is over we must look at what has been able to be put in place within prisons and firstly, ask why some of these much-needed changes could not have been implemented previously, and then ensure that any positive changes are not simply reversed.

For further information or support please visit www.familiesoutside.org.uk

Feature and final image from Pixabay 

Dr Kirsty Deacon is currently a Research Associate with the Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection (CELCIS) based at the University of Strathclyde. Kirsty is a former SCCJR postgraduate and her thesis was on young people’s experiences of the imprisonment of a family member.