SCOTTISH inmates should be given phones as well as televisions in their cells as part of attempts to make them feel like normal human beings and cut reoffending, the prison service's chief executive has said.

Colin McConnell told MSPs on Holyrood's Justice Committee it would enable prisoners to keep in touch with their families, making them less likely to get into trouble after their release.

Describing himself as a "fan of TVs in cells", Mr McConnell said there were lots of positives that would come from allowing such a move.

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His comments appear to fly in the face of attempts to clamp down on phones in prisons amid fears of inmates coordinating drug dealing and other criminal activity from behind bars.

Mr McConnell admitted his remarks about phones in cells were a bit reformist and would not go down well with some members of the general public.

He added: "It seems to me you get people to behave normally if you treat them normally; you try and recreate normality.

"One of the things that's generally accepted helps towards reducing reoffending is relationships and family contact. Anything reasonably and safely we can do to help sustain and develop family contact, we should give it a go."

Committee convener Christine Grahame said televisions and phones in cells should come "with the caveat that presumably there is monitoring of what they are watching and obviously phone calls, so people don't think they are in some kind of Marriott Hotel instead of in prison."

There was controversy 14 months ago when 1600 flat-screen televisions were ordered for prison cells, with Labour leading the attack on the message this sent.

But the prison service said having TV sets in cells had become the norm since 1999 and, as prisoners paid for them, there was no cost for the taxpayer. In addition, this was a privilege that could be withdrawn in the event of indiscipline.

Labour's Graeme Pearson, a former director general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, told how he visited Low Moss Prison in Bishopbriggs, where inmates are not allowed to watch TV after 1am.

Mr Pearson said this appeared to have a very positive effect on the prison because it encourages prisoners to go to sleep, "which means in the morning they are more engaged and ready to go out and do something".

Mr McConnell said there were pros and cons to having a curfew, adding television could be a "window on the world".

He said: "It's about keeping informed about what's going on and actually it's a displacement activity as well.

"If it stops somebody thinking horrible thoughts about themselves or others and encourages discourse about Coronation Street, the news or whatever it might be, I think there's loads of positives that come from that. I know it's one of those issues that polarises people but I think there's a place for it.

"Whether it should have a curfew, I think there are pros and cons. I'd much rather treat people with the respect and decency in the sense of 'please use it sensibly' and those that don't, we might have to curtail it."

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: "It sounds like Mr McConnell wants to turn prisons into more of a home-from-home than they already are.

"Allowing inmates additional privileges to those on offer just now will not cut reoffending. Nor will giving them the means and opportunity to communicate with criminal contacts outside the prison walls."

For Labour, Lewis Macdonald said: "Access to facilities such as TV should be linked to participation in purposeful activity by prisoners and we must never have unrestricted access to telephones.

"I welcome new ideas being brought in to how we manage our prisons, but we need to look at sorting the fundamentals first, before looking at TVs and phones in cells."