Report on men's local prisons during Covid-19

By Agencies
May 19, 2020

Three large and busy men’s local prisons visited by inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons during the COVID-19 crisis were found to be stable, with prisoners mostly supportive of the 'extreme' regime restrictions aimed at keeping them safe.

Publishing a report on the visits, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said clear communications played an important part in promoting prisoner acceptance of restrictions – which often meant often only 30 minutes per day out of cell at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool, HMP Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey and HMP Wandsworth in south London.

However, Mr Clarke also struck a note of caution, observing that the prisons faced potentially greater challenges in coming months as they tried to ease restrictions and reintroduce more purposeful regimes.

Inspectors carried out three one-day short scrutiny visits (SSVs) to the three prisons on 28 April. SSVs were developed to enable HM Inspectorate of Prisons to meet its duty to report on treatment and conditions whilst adhering to health guidance and to avoid the demands of normal full inspections.

Mr Clarke said: “These large and busy prisons present considerable management challenges even in less exceptional times, including overcrowding and, in the case of Wandsworth, 19th-century accommodation.

“It was a credit to the approach of staff and skilled crisis management by senior managers that all the prisons were stable and prisoners we spoke to were largely supportive of the action that had been taken. Clear and imaginative communication from senior managers to prisoners and staff underpinned these findings.”

The report noted: “The high level of communications and consultation we saw helped to increase the legitimacy of the restrictions among prisoners.” Prisons made good use of prison radio and television channels and Elmley communicated effectively with foreign national prisoners. Strong communications are among ten examples of notable good practice identified in the report.

This level of communication was critical, Mr Clarke added, given the extreme restrictions that prisoners were being asked to endure. “The vast majority were locked up for nearly the whole day with usually no more than half an hour out of their cells. We found some examples of even greater restrictions. In one prison, a small number of symptomatic prisoners had been isolated in their cells without any opportunity to come out for a shower or exercise for up to 14 days.”

More positively, processes for supporting prisoners at risk of self-harm remained in place at all establishments and recorded levels of self-harm had either remained the same or slightly reduced at all prisons.

Most isolating prisoners felt supported by staff. Management of health care and joint working to manage local outbreaks were effective across all three sites and mental health support was being sustained across each prison.

Prisoners were given well-designed activity packs to occupy themselves while in their cells and each prison had also maintained employment for a small number of men, with some workshops running in each prison with reduced workforces to enable adequate social distancing.

Inspectors found that efforts had been made everywhere to promote a safer environment through rigorous cleaning and social distancing, though narrow landings and cramped accommodation made social distancing extremely difficult in some parts of each prison. Mr Clarke added: “We also saw too many staff were unnecessarily crowding into small offices in some prisons. It was obvious that important messages were not always fully understood or practised.”

The loss of visits had had a considerable impact on all prisoners and while in-cell telephones were a great help, not enough had yet been done to expand the use of video-calling to better compensate for the loss of face-to-face contact. Very few prisoners had been released through the early release scheme. While the prisons’ populations had all declined slightly, each had received large numbers of recalled prisoners.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “We were impressed by the way that prison managers, staff and prisoners had adapted to the challenges presented by the current crisis. We were also struck by the support that staff had so far received from prisoners who understood the reasons for the extreme restrictions to which they were subject. Prison managers were starting to turn their minds towards the potentially even greater challenges that lay ahead, of recovery and providing more purposeful and rehabilitative regimes.”

Commenting on the findings of the report, Peter Dawson, Director for Prison Reform Trust said: “This important report shows why there is absolutely no room for complacency about the crisis in our prisons. People are sharing cells with someone who might or might not be carrying the virus. They are spending weeks on end in an overcrowded cell for 23 and a half hours a day. Some sick prisoners have gone a fortnight without a shower. Prison managers, staff and prisoners have worked together to make the best of an impossible situation. They all deserve praise for doing so.

“By contrast, ministers have not done all they could to help. These three prisons are still overcrowded, but just one person has been released early to make space. To make matters worse, a much larger number of people are still being recalled to serve just a few days inside, despite the obvious risks. The current situation is obviously not sustainable, and will stop making sense as restrictions in the community start to ease and receptions into prison increase. It’s time for ministers to step up and end the overcrowding which turns a difficult situation into a dangerous one.”

* Read the report here

* Prison Reform Trust http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/

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