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First and foremost, I apologise to James Kelly for the technical issues that I had the last time that he tried to ask this important question.
We recognise and value the importance of family links and the impact of the restrictions, and the suspension of visits in particular, on those who are in custody and their families. The Scottish Prison Service has been working hard to introduce a variety of different initiatives to enable contact between those who are in custody and their families during the current Covid outbreak.
From next week, virtual visits will go live at a number of sites, allowing those who are in custody and their families to have video calls. The scheme will then be rolled out across the prison estate in the coming weeks. In addition, as I referenced during portfolio question time, restricted mobile phones are being introduced across the prison estate as another way of supporting those who are in custody. Directions through the prison rules to allow that to happen will be laid before Parliament next week, with the roll-out of phones starting thereafter.
The email a prisoner service is available in all prisons, as is prisoner voicemail, which allows those in custody to listen to messages from friends and family.
As the cabinet secretary noted, the current restrictions are very challenging for prisoners and their families due to the lack of contact. Visits have been cancelled since 24 March. Why has the introduction of virtual visits taken nearly three months? What steps will be taken to deal with those who do not have the information technology capability or adequate data on their devices to be able to make the arrangements for a virtual visit?
Those are important questions. I know that James Kelly will absolutely understand this but, during the Covid-19 pandemic, nobody, let alone the Scottish Prison Service, has been sitting on their hands or twiddling their thumbs. There has been a public health crisis for us to deal with. Therefore, the efforts have been going into dealing with that crisis and keeping as many people in our prisons as safe as possible. I remind members that, at any one time at the peak of the crisis, 100 people across the prison estate were self-isolating. As I said, that number has now reduced to single figures.
First and foremost, the effort has been focused on the public health imperative.
In relation to the time that it has taken for the measures on mobile phones and virtual visits to be put in place, clearly, setting up infrastructure for such matters takes time. However, it is not the case that the Scottish Prison Service has been doing nothing in that regard. It has given extra credit to prisoners so that they can call their families, it has introduced the email a prisoner system and rolled that out across all establishments, and it has the prisoner voicemail system.
I hope that James Kelly understands—I know that he does, because of his vast experience in these matters—that the infrastructure for virtual visits or mobile phones across some of the prison estate needed updating and upgrading, which has taken some time.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission has identified that restrictions placed on prisoners leaving their cells and the lack of exercise can potentially compromise a prisoner’s mental health and wellbeing. What arrangements are being made for health and mental health checks to be carried out on prisoners to ensure that there is no undue deterioration in their health during the current difficult circumstances?
The reduction in the prison population has made our job immeasurably easier. I know that James Kelly supported the early release scheme. As a result of that scheme and the reduction in court business, we have seen a dramatic drop of more than 1,000 prisoners in our prison population. That has made the attention that we can give to each prisoner, whether it relates to their physical or mental health, so much better.
The Scottish Prison Service and I speak about mental health regularly and information is provided to each prisoner on their mental health and wellbeing. Clearly, if we can do anything further on that, we will look to explore it.
Meeting closed at 15:28