Number of establishments: 15
Number of prisoners using the service: 8,200
Number of video sessions since implementation 38,000+
Average number of sessions per week: 1,200+
The challenge at the Scottish Prison Service
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has a duty to protect the public by keeping those who have been sentenced in safe and secure custody, while public safety is delivered through constructive engagement with those in care, focussing on recovery and reintegration. SPS operates 13 prisons directly and a further two are run by private sector operators under contract to SPS. Currently there are just over 8,200 prisoners in SPS’ care.
The Scottish Prison Service recognises the benefits of maintaining family ties and introduced specific standards for encouraging family contact in 2013, with five key standards – access, communication, participation, respect, and safety.
SPS survey the prison population on a regular basis, in the 2019 survey 43% of prisoners responded that they had received physical visits from friends and family. One fifth received visits weekly, 9% received visits fortnightly, and 11% received visits monthly. However, over half reported that their visitors experienced problems when visiting them in prison (53%). The problem reported most frequently was the distance of the prison from their home (72%), followed by a lack of transport (65%) and the cost involved in getting to the prison (57%).
The challenge of supporting contact for prisoners with friends and family was heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic. Following national guidance to ensure the health protection of public and people in care and prevention of the spread of the virus, SPS suspended all physical visits in prison.
When the Covid-19 crisis began and traditional face-to-face visits were suspended in prisons around the world, SPS sought out Unilink’s Video Sessions service to be installed in all Scottish prisons.
Video Sessions is a secure, visual communication method between prisoners and their families, regardless of their location. This cloud-based solution uses secure peer to peer, encrypted connections which prevent potential call interception by third parties. All sessions are pre-booked and approved by the establishment and only authorised visitors are able to participate in the video call. Facial recognition is used to verify and monitor visitors before and during the video session.
The service is free of charge for prisoners and prisons to use and during the first months of the Covid lockdown was provided free of charge to families too. Francis Toye, CEO of Unilink said “It is vital to provide every possible means to connect prisoners and their loved ones. Especially at challenging times like these where the world is fighting the threat of Coronavirus and prison visits are closed. Prison time is tough especially under lockdown with no family visits and I am really proud that Unilink is helping in this way to reduce the tension caused by the lockdown”.
The Video Sessions have a number of benefits to prisoners, their families and prison staff. The service is reliable, low cost and easy to access on any browser-enabled device – phone, tablet, laptop or PC. The sessions last up to 60 minutes, are accessible from anywhere in the world and removes the cost of travel to and from prisons. They help prisoners to keep in touch with their loved ones, which improves their mental wellbeing and promotes positive parenting. Benefits to staff include the control over the scheduling of sessions, recorded sessions allow gathering of intelligence and preventing contraband smuggling by visitors.
SPS approached Unilink for the Video Sessions service in March 2020 awarded the contract in May 2020. Unilink worked closely with SPS to on-board, setup and configure the service to enable all residents in all prisons to conduct secure video calls. Within three weeks of contract award, the service was successfully rolled out across all 15 prison sites.
- Project Management – Unilinks Project Management & Service Delivery Management teams liaised with a range of stakeholders from SPS, individual prison management and prison officers to plan the rollout of the service across all sites within the tight deadline and without any physical visits by Unilink staff.
- Training & User Guides – Unilink’s training team supported Administrators, Prison Management and Prison Officers delivered remote training covering how to use the system, complete basic troubleshooting tasks, log support queries and understand the end-to-end process of booking, managing, overseeing and recording video sessions.
- Pre-configuration, Testing & Rollout –the service rolled out at an average of one prison per day. SPS provided a list of sites and the order in which each site was to be setup. Unilink completed the site pre-configuration and testing phase prior to going live with the service. For each establishment this was scheduled in the morning and upon successful testing, the site would enable the service in the afternoon with the ability to conduct live video sessions on the following day.
- Service Communication – Given the importance of this service during Covid, Unilink and SPS were regularly communicating start dates for each prison to friends and family through various channels. SPS updated their website to include information on how to register and request a video session and created their own “how to” video guide.
Impact since installation
Since the implementation of the service, over 38,000 successful video sessions have been carried out. This is an average of 1,200 calls per week or over 4,000 video sessions conducted each month across the entire estate, and the service is working smoothly with little to no support queries.
Communication helps the overall mental wellbeing of both prisoners and their loved ones and improves the chances of rehabilitation. Research from the Ministry of Justice, England and Wales shows that “Prisoners who receive visits from a family member are 39% less likely to reoffend than one who does not”. SPS Chief Executive, Teresa Medhurst said: “The value of maintaining family links in custody is widely known as a fundamental element of rehabilitation. The provision of virtual visits and phones has been critical in the ongoing and very challenging circumstances.” [Source]
One Video Session customer said: “Seeing our brother after months of not being able to visit him in person was really great. It’s really important for both our family and my brother to continue to have positive contact during this extremely difficult time when we have no idea when we may be able to see him in person. Thank you so much for making this possible”
Unilink is determined to keep providing Video Sessions beyond Covid-19 pandemic not as a substitute of physical visits but as an additional way of communication that improves family ties, chances of rehabilitation and overall mental wellbeing of both prisoners and their loved ones. This is echoed by the Scottish Government:
“It is absolutely our desire in the Scottish Government to ensure that virtual visits can continue after the pandemic because of the success of their roll-out and the impact that they have had.” Humza Yousaf MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Justice [Source]
“This reflects the Scottish Government’s commitment to maintaining safe, stable prison regimes – where conditions are conducive to and supportive of successful rehabilitation.
Scotland’s approach to penal policy has helped drive down the country’s reconviction rate to its lowest level since comparable records began. And of course, less re-offending has contributed to keeping crime down and communities safe.” Humza Yousaf MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Justice [Source]