Conferencing technology has allowed more than 17,000 virtual prison visits to take place since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, in what has been called a "vital lifeline."

New figures from the Scottish Government show that 17,701 visits were made virtually between June and the end of November.

The virtual visiting system, which was put in place after face-to-face visitation was suspended due to Covid-19, meant that family and friends could still have face time.

Family and friends are now able to see prisoners in person again.

Along with electronic visits, some prisoners have also been given access to phones in their cells so they can contact pre-approved loved ones.

The figures also show 5,284 calls were made by prisoners to Samaritans, out of 532,000 calls made since the programme started.

HeraldScotland: Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf called the system a "vital lifeline"Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf called the system a "vital lifeline"

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “The decision to suspend in-person visiting was a difficult but necessary one to help reduce the spread of the virus in the vulnerable setting of prisons and to protect the health and safety of prison and NHS staff, as well as those in custody.

“Video conferencing technology and mobile phones have provided a vital lifeline for inmates, but one that involved a lot of detailed work to overcome a variety of legal, logistical and technological barriers.”

He added: “The successful rollout of video conferencing and mobile technologies is testament to the hard work and dedication of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) management and staff and part of this Government’s wider commitment to maintaining safe, stable prison regimes – where conditions are conducive to and supportive of successful rehabilitation.

“That broader approach to penal policy has helped drive down the country’s reconviction rate to its lowest level since comparable records began. And of course, less reoffending has contributed to keeping crime down and communities safe.”

SPS chief executive Teresa Medhurst said visits from loved ones increase rehabilitation rates in prisoners, describing the virtual platforms as “critical” during the pandemic.

“The SPS continues to review in-person visits in the light of public health advice,” she added.

“Over the festive period and into the new year, the value of virtual visits and telephones is likely to be of even greater value to all living in Scotland’s prisons than at any other time during this health crisis.”