Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP has today written to the Justice Secretary calling for the Scottish Government to look at ways it can mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the prison service including reforms to remand and offering prisons access to telephone services to alleviate unrest as a result of longer periods of isolation.
Mr McArthur's letter is as follows:
Further to your statement this week on the repercussions of coronavirus on our justice system, I wanted to set out some further concerns that I would be grateful for your thoughts on.
Firstly, as has been widely observed, prisons face particular difficulties in terms of containing and responding to the virus as it enters the estate. Healthcare pressures that were already stressed become even more so in the context of over-crowding and self-isolation.
You have acknowledged before that remand is used too often. In the circumstances, I believe addressing that concern should become a priority. Placing people in an estate that is already overcrowded to await trials that will certainly face delay will create needless and potentially unmanageable pressure. Now more than ever we must fight the instinct to place people on remand, so that it is only used for those who genuinely pose a threat by being in their community.
I understand that some work is being conducted by your officials to consider how remand is used, and what can be done to make its use more proportionate. I appreciate that this work may now be delayed. However, I would suggest that any early learning or interim conclusions that can be taken at this point should be urgently applied. Creative alternatives to remand could be the best way to reduce the population safely and sensibly.
I would also urge you to consider an estate wide rollout of the in cell telephony trialled in some establishments last year. I understand in other places this technology had resulted in a 40% reduction in violence levels, alongside decreases in instances of self-harm.
Self-isolation and lockdown has already impacted how prisoners can maintain contact with their friends and families. Giving prisoners the ability to speak to verified contacts would be likely to lessen the impact of increased hours spent in cells. It could be the vital lifeline that makes the difference between life and death for some.
I appreciate that there are many issues to grapple with as a result of coronavirus, but I believe that the measures outlined above could make a virtue out of necessity.
I look forward to your response.
Liam McArthur MSP
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson