Reflections on detention support in the pandemic

Kate Alexander, Director of Scottish Detainee Visitors, shares her thoughts on supporting people in detention during the pandemic

Covid-19 has shaken everyone over the last three months. We have all had to adapt to new ways of life, new ways of staying in touch with others, and new ways of working. For organisations like SDV and others in the AVID network, it has been a steep learning curve. 

In March, when the lockdown was imposed, we stopped being able to do what we do: visit people in detention to offer support. Since then we’ve been trying to adapt to the situation and have had to consider new ways of working. Here are some of the things we’ve had to think about.

How do we move to a system of remote support for people in detention? 

This is a more complicated question than it at first appears. SDV offers group visits, so a move to working principally by phone means a move to individual support, which is more intense and could leave visitors less supported. If a person in detention discloses something upsetting on the phone, a person offering support does not have the back up of their fellow visitors in dealing with that. How can SDV adapt its peer support model to work remotely? 

Speaking over the phone to people whose first language is not English, can be trickier than face to face because of the loss of visual cues and ‘sign language’. SDV is lucky in having a visiting team that includes speakers of lots of languages. This, coupled with the language skills among people in detention, and our group visits means that we can often manage to speak to people in detention who have very little English. With telephone support none of these options is available, so we have to consider how we manage that. We have been exploring how we might use interpreters and the training our visitors might require to do so.

Our regular visits are run on a rota system, with visitors managing each individual visit with support from staff. Moving to a more individualised system needs greater staff involvement in allocating visitors to people in detention. Recording and monitoring systems also need to be altered to suit the new arrangements. 

Supporting fewer people?

Dungavel has been under-occupied for a long time. At our last visit there were around 40 people detained. Since then, numbers have dropped further and we believe there are now around 20 people there. We currently have ten people in detention on our list. This also raises questions for us. Do lower numbers mean we will need fewer visitors? Will volunteering with SDV become a less regular and more sporadic activity? What will this mean for the volunteer experience? 

Offering post-detention support

Some of our partners in the AVID network have moved to offer post detention support to people who have been released from detention because of the pandemic. At SDV, we already have our Life After Detention group, which operates as a source of peer support and a space for creative activities for people with experience of detention. But it is not straightforward to adapt that service to one that meets the very different needs of people being released in the pandemic, particularly when it is not possible to meet people in person, and when the Life After Detention group itself has had to adapt to the ‘new normal’.

Offering ‘blended’ visits

As the lockdown eases we will need to consider how and whether we can get back to Dungavel. Social distancing is likely to be with us for many months to come, and even when detention centres open again for visits, groups like ours will have to decide whether and in what form we return: we have a duty of care to our visitors. One option we are thinking about is offering a mix of in-person visits and remote visits, but for us, that will involve a discussion about how visitors can safely travel to a place that can only be reached by car. 

An emergency response

During lockdown, SDV has offered an emergency response to the few people that remain in Dungavel. This has been provided by our currently depleted staff, but we have also been working to develop the systems and policies we will need to continue to provide a service to people in detention, and after detention. In this, we have been fortunate to be able to call upon the experience of other organisations in the AVID network. AVID have been hosting regular meetings in which we can share our experiences and skills. This support has been invaluable as we move into the next phase of our Covid-19 response. 

You can find out more about the work of Scottish Detainee Visitors here

Publication date: 
Monday, July 6, 2020