Allow phone calls from cells to boost mental health support, MSPs told

Young offenders should be allowed to make phone calls from their cells to increase the support available to them when they are distressed, according to the chief inspector of prisons in Scotland.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben made the comments at Holyrood’s Justice Committee on Tuesday as MSPs heard evidence on the availability of mental health services at HMP YOI Polmont.

Addressing MSPs, Ms Sinclair-Gieben suggested that providing in-cell technology allowing offenders to make calls could help to combat some of the mental health problems caused by social-isolation.

She explained that the technology would consist of cordless phones being installed in which offenders would have to dial in their pin number before being able to make a call to numbers that had been agreed upon for them to use.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “If you think of young people, those of us who have teenagers, they’re welded to their phones.

“You’re taking that away from them, but also you’re taking away their primary vehicle for communication.

“And so if you are distressed at night, currently you can ring a bell and somebody will come and give you a phone to phone Samaritans. That requires a level of sort of self-help seeking behaviour.

“Whereas, in fact, if you can just phone a helpline, phone your family, phone all the rest of it, from your room without having to stigmatise yourself, I think that would be a huge benefit and I would certainly say it’s a quick win.”

Last week, the chief inspector published a review on mental health services for young people in custody, which called for the creation of a stronger suicide and self-harm strategy.

The review was ordered after the deaths of two young people at Polmont – 16-year-old William Lindsay and 21-year-old Katie Allan.

Katie Allan death
A review of mental health support was called after the deaths of Katie Allan, 21 (above) and 16-year-old William Lindsay (Allan family/PA)

Asked if a measure to introduce the in-cell phone technology could pose any risks, Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “Not that I can see. I can’t see any difference between using the phone because it follows exactly the same security guidelines as the normal phone on the wing.

“So supposing they phone their family and they get distressed –  so then you might say, ‘well what could they do?’.

“Well at least they can phone the helpline, they can do all that. They can still ring the buzzer and ask for staff help.

“That’s no different to if they were distressed in their room without any access to help.”

Ms Sinclair-Gieben added: “It doesn’t require any legislation, I think it needs support.

“The other advantage of course is that staff can listen in to the ones that are happening in the middle of the night, which is when most people get very distressed.”

When asked what impact such measures had had in England and Wales, where it was announced in July last year that in-cell technology would be piloted at several prisons, Ms Sinclair-Gieben suggested that the installation of the technology ultimately pays for itself.

She said: “The cost implications vary on the age of the prison. Where there is cabling already into the cell, the cost implications are neutral.

“So the cost of putting it in is offset by the profits made back to the company by the number of phone calls.

“The number of phone calls go up hugely inevitably – rather than having to queue for a phone, worrying about how your wife’s labour’s going, you can just go in your room and phone and you can do it in private.

“As a result, the company that installs them, and it varies on the company, actually makes sufficient money that it pays itself off after two years, so it’s worth doing.

“What’s interesting is that I put it into a juvenile prison with 400 juveniles and thought, ‘Oh, how much is this going to cost us?’.

“In reality, at the end of the year, no phones were damaged, our levels of violence went down 40%, and our levels of self-harm went down dramatically.”

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