With Aberdeen and Peterhead prisons closing their gates for the last time in 2013-2014, prisoners in the north east of Scotland were relocated to HMPs Barlinnie and Perth until the opening of the new HMP&YOI Grampian in March 2014.
Recognising that during this time, families would find it very difficult to visit loved ones so far away, the Scottish Prison Service approached Apex Scotland in Aberdeen to set up a Virtual Visits hub. This initiative was to form part of the National Video Conferencing Project within the Scottish Government making Justice Work Programme. Using a high specification video link, relatives can maintain that much-needed contact and retain strong family links, which is seen as a key factor in reducing reoffending.
The video conferencing facilities at Apex in Aberdeen have been linked up with HMP&YOI Grampian, HMP Barlinnie, HMP Perth and YOI Polmont.
Colin McConnell, SPS Chief Executive stated, “Maintaining family contact is a key area in the rehabilitation of those in our care and the facility at Apex in Aberdeen has enhanced the support we provide. This initiative is an excellent example of agencies working together for the benefit of the community.”
Visitors have come from all over the north east, including Shetland, with one visitor from Belgium able to arrange a virtual visit to a friend in HMP Perth during a week’s holiday in Aberdeen. There has been lots of positive feedback around the easy access to the service and friendliness of the Apex staff. Visitors have commented about how convenient it is to visit at weekends and evenings for working families or friends. A lot of visitors prefer the less formal setting and the lack of stress involved in visiting a prison. One point that was made by a family member recently, was that she felt it was easier to leave a virtual visit; she felt it much harder saying goodbye to her grandson in person within a prison.
Offenders have been equally positive with comments such as “a great scheme” and “brilliant idea” often made. There is appreciation that families don’t have to drive for hours to be able to see their loved ones but having contact with children is one of the main benefits for the whole family with service users saying: “It’s been good to keep in touch with my kids even if it was by video” and “Saw my new born on a video two days after she was born it was ace!”
In the first 6 months of the Virtual Visits service, Apex Aberdeen has had nearly 700 visitors, of which more than 120 have been children. Scottish charity Families Outside said, “We are delighted to see Apex Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service and HMP Grampian leading the way with these and [we have] encouraged and supported a number of family members to take part. For young people in particular these provide a new and innovative way for them to keep in touch with parents in prison.”
Stuart Campbell, Head of Operations in HMP Perth said in a recent report: “The team at Apex Grampian have been excellent in their approach to this project and deserve huge thanks for what they have achieved. They have embraced the concept of virtual visits and have gone the extra mile to ensure that customers that used the service were properly looked after and also ensured that every visit was properly managed and every visitor warmly greeted.”