phones in-cells

Phones in Prisons: Reconnect or Rehabilitate?

Yesterday’s headlines carried the good news that prisons in England and Wales will have in-cell phones installed this year. This is an important penal reform that will improve the quality of life for prisoners in England and Wales, but it also casts a critical light on Scottish prison policy and how and why we might now wish to emulate this development.

 

Scotland – an Outlier

The possibility of in-cell phones was tentatively proposed in Scotland in 2013, but received little public and political backing. It seems that this issue has not been explored any further since then. Until recently Northern Ireland was the only UK jurisdiction to provide people in prison with in-cell landlines. Now, however, as England and Wales move forward with this prison reform Scotland will be left behind, soon to become the only prison system in the UK that does not provide prisoners with landline access inside their cells. The dominant and prevailing argument given in support of providing prisoners greater access to private and affordable phones is that it will increase rehabilitation and therefore reduce crime. This is because there is a great deal of research suggesting that family contact helps reduce recidivism.[1] However, should our prison reform aspirations be limited to rehabilitation and desistance? 

 

Family Contact

We know that prisons are isolating for prisoners. Prisons have restrictions on when and how often prisoners can receive visitors; and in Scotland, where prisons are often widely dispersed across this vast nation, actual family contact can be more difficult to maintain than it might immediately appear.[2] This makes phone contact all the more important. For the time being, however, in Scotland prisoners’ calls will continue to be made on public phones on public landings – where private conversations, family matters, and any and all news will still be received in full view and within earshot of other people. At the very least, this makes maintaining genuine and meaningful conversation with those outside the prison much more difficult. Insufficient family contact is part of what causes suffering for prisoners beyond the deprivation of liberty, and therefore the justification for more landlines in prison cells runs deeper than reducing crime.

In addition, we should never treat families merely as a tool to be used to support prisoner rehabilitation, particularly given the corrosive impact the prison can have on their lives. While they themselves are not imprisoned, the prison usually comes to dominate their family life. Having a family member in prison can cause anxiety, shame and stigma, deepen social and economic marginality, and having a parent imprisoned can yield particularly devastating consequences (Wakefield and Wildeman 2014). As one of Scotland’s leading experts on imprisonment and its wider impact on families, Dr Cara Jardine, has written, given their ‘potential difficulties and vulnerabilities, these families should be offered support as individuals in their own right and not simply viewed as a potential resource for reducing reoffending’. 

 

Communication and Well-Being or Rehabilitation?

There is a strong general argument for phones in cells. If the Scottish Government, and our New Cabinet Secretary, Humza Yousaf, decide to reconsider the position on prison phones, then they will need to think seriously about why we do it: how the policy works in practice will depend on whether its main rationale is reducing reoffending or to help improve family contact. If a phones policy is to help maintain as normal as possible family relations, then phones in cells will be able to receive incoming calls as well as make out-going calls. In addition, if the Justice Department and SPS are motivated by reducing the problems caused by imprisonment and not merely rehabilitation, then they will need to address how phones are paid for. If we want to lessen the destructive impact of the prison on family life, mental health, and reintegration, then the Scottish Government and the Prison Service must foot the bill for this increased phone contact.

As Jas, someone who is currently serving a sentence in a Scottish prison, recently wrote, managing a weekly budget in prison is a careful balancing act, challanged by the same demands of low wages and increased cost of living. But what his account also reveals is the already existing stress for prisoners and their friends and families in financially managing continued contact in Scotland. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of the people in prison are from communities that experience the most acute financial deprivation. As Jas writes, ‘I believe that high phone call costs and low prison wages is a double-edged sword that makes the SPS’s literature of ‘encouraging positive relationships’, less achievable’. Therefore, the current cost of phones in prison means people are already limiting their family contact, and thus undermining the health and welfare of the entire family.

Now, add into this existing situation the possibility of increased family contact and what the penal system will also inadvertently create is additional anxiety about not being able to afford to maintain contact: it would cost £1.30 per day for a prisoner calling home every day for just ten minutes to a mobile, multiply this by 7 days and it would cost £9.10 per week (which is more than some prisoners wages). Therefore, if this policy is about maintaining family contact and lessening the harm caused by imprisonment, then HLS advocate that in practice phones will need to be affordable and flexible.

 

Time to Reconnect Prisoners? 

The Scottish Government, should they now decide to also follow the present progressive trend and install phones in prison cells, should do so because it helps make prisons more humane, softening the sense of isolation a prisoner feels and may make reintegration less difficult. Secondly, the government should also consider this a worthy and vitally important venture because of the wider social impact of improved prisoner contact. The Scottish government already acknowledges that the families of prisoners suffer collaterally in ways that can cause lasting damage. If we wish to limit the unintended injustices of the Scottish criminal justice system, then increasing the opportunities for normal family contact must be made a priority for prison policy in 2018. It is time for Scottish prisons to reconsider the issue of phones in cells, but we should also do so for the right reasons. Rehabilitation is an important aim for prison policy, but we need not narrow the rationale behind progressive reforms to reducing reoffending. Instead, prison policy makes its most progressive and socially just impact when it attempts to transform the prison by reducing the detrimental effects of imprisonment on prisoners and society alike.

 

Footnotes:

[1]Mills A. and Codd, H. (2008) ‘Prisoners’ Families and Offender Management: Mobilizing Social Capital’, Probation journal, 55(1): 9-24. 

[2]In 2015, 61% of Scottish prisoners reported that the cost involved in getting to the prison was prohibitive and 57% stated that the distance of the prison from their home also made arranging visits difficult. Scottish Prisoner Survey 2015: http://www.sps.gov.uk/Corporate/Publications/Publication-4565.aspx

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