The figures from August 2021 to January 2022 show an average of 2,183 calls were made by prisoners every month to the charity helpline, aimed at those struggling to cope or at risk of suicide.
Academics and campaigners said the high volume of calls, revealed by a freedom of information request, showed the huge level of mental need, fuelled by increased isolation.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions over the last two years, prisoners have often been locked up for more than 23 hours a day, which some claim is de facto solitary confinement.
But critics have previously called for the scheme to be scrapped following revelations about the use of phones to make drug deals.
Call rates logged at Barlinnie were the highest at 3,792. It is Scotland’s largest jail, which has an average population of over 1,400 inmates.
Edinburgh prison, which has a capacity of under 900, also recorded high call volumes to the mental health helpline with 3,782 calls made in six months.
At Polmont, where women and young offenders are held, 1,654 calls were made.
Figures were released in response to a written question to the Scottish Parliament and date from June to November 2020, when the phones were first made available to prisoners.
They show 5,284 calls were made. In some prisons where phones were only made available in July, this data covers only four and a half months. But campaigners said that even with these caveats, the call rates had risen sharply.
The Scottish Government policy to provide mobile phones to prisoners – in response to the cancellation of visits during the pandemic – has been controversial. Last September an investigation by ITV news found 728 phones had been found to be operating with illegal SIM cards, used for drug deals and other criminal activity since August 2020.
The policy, which by January 2022 had cost more than £3m to roll-out, came under fire with opposition politicians calling for the scheme to be scrapped.
Last December a freedom of information response showed mobile phones have been temporarily seized 1,899 times since May 2020. In response Scottish Conservative MSP Russell Findlay said the “ill-conceived scheme” had “backfired badly”.
But those in favour of the policy told The Ferret said the number of calls to the Samaritans showed that phones were a “lifeline” for many.
Stirling University criminologist Dr Hannah Graham said: “The provision of mobile phones in prisons has been politicised and criticised on grounds of cost and instances of their misuse.
But she claimed their “necessity” on human rights grounds, including access to healthcare and communication with loved ones, should not be overlooked.
The “sharp rise” in calls to the Samaritans was “concerning” she said, adding: “We need to know more about why this is happening.
“These helpline call figures beg the question of whether enough is being done to support men’s mental health in prisons such as HMP Barlinnie and Edinburgh.”
Her concerns echo those highlighted in research, published in March this year, into the impact of lockdown on prisoners led by a team of Glasgow University academics.
Their survey of 86 prisoners found there was a “severe negative impact on mental and physical health from lockdown measures” with an increase in suicidal feelings and attempts.
Mental health services “declined or disappeared and health staff compassion was criticised” the report said.
Natalie Logan-McLean, chief executive of Sisco, which runs groups to support those recovering from addiction – known as recovery cafes – in prisons including Barlinnie, said she had seen levels of mental health distress rise dramatically.
Sisco was founded by Logan-McLean and was the nickname of her father, who died in prison while on suicide watch.
She said that many of those were in prison due to criminality linked to addiction. “There are men in prison who are a danger to society and they need to be there,” she added.
“But there are many others who have committed petty crimes that are linked to their addiction and we cannot continue to use this punitive approach for people who are in addiction. We have got this system so wrong.
“We know that men and women in prisons are often traumatised and have experienced physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
“The only reason they are using substances is to escape themselves. And so when you introduce isolation and lock them in a cell for 23 hours you are doing to see a huge increase in levels of suicidal ideation and self harm.”
Linda Allan, whose 21-year-old daughter Katie took her own life in Polmont Young Offenders Institute in 2018, said she was not surprised at the level of need. Allan, who is still waiting for the outcome of Katie’s fatal accident inquiry, has worked on research with Glasgow University into deaths in custody.
“Nothing has changed [since Katie died],” she said. “Look at the number of deaths in prison – those figures are worse than ever.” In 2021 there were 54 deaths in Scottish jails, a rise of 60 per cent.
She added: “People have been in what amounts to solitary confinement now for up to two years. That includes those on remand who could be innocent.”
Concerns about the growing number of prisoners on remand have repeatedly been raised by campaigners in recent years. Currently 29 per cent of the prison population are on remand, many of whom have been held for many months.
According to a freedom of information request from December 21, 658 people had been held for more than 140 days – the amount of time they can legally be held without trial.
But Scottish Conservative community safety spokesman Russell Findlay said: “When the pandemic stopped prison visits it was right to maintain communication with family and friends and it’s encouraging that these phones have been put to good use in this way.
“But, according to HMP Barlinnie staff, these supposedly tamper-proof phones were hacked within hours of arrival, resulting in them being used to deal drugs and make threatening calls to people.
“Vulnerable prisoners have been targeted for their phones which are then misused by others.
“This widespread abuse cannot be overlooked.The crucial thing now is that the SNP justice secretary learns from this shambles and ensures that what comes next is safe, secure and good value for taxpayers.”
A spokeperson for the Samaritans said that its 30-year, face-to-face support service had to be halted during the pandemic.
“To meet that challenge Samaritans worked in partnership with the Scottish Prisons Service to ensure our free helpline was available to prisoners,” they added.
Tom Fox, head of external affairs for the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), said the findings justified having phones in their cells. He added: “The fact that mental health suffered as a result of the pandemic will come as a surprise to no-one. The number of calls demonstrates how necessary it was to put phones in.
“The difficulty is that people were locked up 23 hours a day, which was a way of containing the spread of the diseases. That was done with a degree of success. But there will also be consequences of that. The key consideration was saving lives.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government recognises that people in custody present higher levels of risk and vulnerability than the general population as a whole and often have complex mental health needs.”
It claimed work was ongoing to address this, with self-harm policy “key areas of focus” for the Scottish Prison Service.
They added: “Any decision on whether to bail or remand people is for the independent courts. The Scottish Government does, however, have a long-standing commitment to ensure alternatives to remand are available across Scotland.”
A Bill linked to a current Scottish Government consultation on the use of remand is due to be introduced in the coming months.
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