THE PRISON SERVICE in England and Wales prevented predicted large-scale deaths as a result of Covid-19, but severe and prolonged daily lock-up of prisoners harmed their physical and mental welfare, according to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor.

Publishing his first annual report, for 2020–21, Mr Taylor warned that some longstanding problems remained as daily regimes eased in the post-Covid-19 period. These included not only violence, drugs and self-harm but also inconsistency in delivering purposeful activity and rehabilitation.

Mr Taylor’s report covers a year of the Covid-19 pandemic. HMI Prisons was able to report on life in detention in this unprecedented period, Mr Taylor said, “because we were determined, in the early weeks of the pandemic, to find a safe way to enter and inspect places of detention.

“As my predecessor (Peter Clarke) observed… last year, the entrenched problems the Inspectorate had identified over recent years did not disappear because of the pandemic. Violence, for instance, may have been suppressed by locking people up for almost all of the day, but its underlying causes have not gone away and continuing severe lock-up cannot be the answer in a post-Covid-19 world.

“It was understandably difficult for prisons to deliver full programmes of education, training and rehabilitation during Covid-19, but we have found poor outcomes in purposeful activity and failures in rehabilitation and release planning for many years, and the slow pace in some establishments in re-establishing these services has exacerbated that issue.”

Variations in performance between ostensibly comparable establishments – and the failure to learn from the better performing establishments – “were clear to us during Covid-19, and will undoubtedly continue…”. The report explains that HMI Prisons has developed new expectations of leadership – at all levels in prisons. Mr Taylor said: “There is no doubt that good leaders are one of the most important factors in improving prisons.”

Mr Taylor added: “There is a danger of learning the wrong lesson from the pandemic by assuming that the solution to prison violence is to isolate prisoners from each other, rather than to make sure that when they are out of their cells, they are well-managed by high-quality officers during association, and given access to meaningful and productive education, training and work.”

These are some of the key prisons-related findings in Mr Taylor’s report:

  • The Prison Service and ministers should be commended for their initial swift action in preventing the sorts of outbreaks that we have seen in other jurisdictions.
  • Inspectors found that prisoners were initially grateful for the steps taken to keep them safe. However, an HMI Prisons thematic review – What happens to prisoners in a pandemic? – showed that keeping the worst excesses of the virus at bay was achieved at significant cost to the welfare and progression of prisoners, most of whom have spent the pandemic locked in their cells for 22.5 hours a day. Prisoners felt drained, despondent, depleted, helpless and without hope. Inspectors found that most mental health services had ceased routine assessments or interventions and were focusing only on urgent and acute care.
  • Too many prisoners were locked up with too little to do before the pandemic and the situation became much worse this year, even in training prisons. Visits have recently restarted in some establishments, but many prisoners have not seen family or friends for over a year.
  • Classroom-based education stopped in March 2020 and did not restart in the summer, in most prisons when restrictions were being lifted. Generic cell packs were developed, but some of these did not arrive until months after the lockdown began. “The idea that these packs are in any way a substitute for high-quality face-to-face teaching is fanciful”, Mr Taylor said. “The lack of access to offender management programmes, education, resettlement planning and family visits meant that many prisoners were released without some of the core building blocks that would help them lead successful, crime-free lives.”
  • While self-harm in male prisons had generally fallen, it increased among women in prison, particularly in the early months of the pandemic. Mr Taylor added: “Women’s lack of contact with the outside world had led to extreme frustration and many had not seen their children for many months.”
  • When restrictions were introduced last March 2020, children in custody were subjected to the same regime as adults, with a big reduction in time out of cell and, with the notable exception of Parc YOI, in South Wales, no face-to-face education.

In 2020–21, for the first time, HMI Prisons inspected Border Force short-term holding facilities (STHFs) on a national basis. The key finding was that there was inadequate leadership and management of STHF detention under the Home Office. The Inspectorate also inspected conditions for those arriving in Dover on small boats and found “a general failure to plan for what we considered to have been a predictable increase in arrivals.” Mr Taylor added: “The facilities at Tug Haven looked more like a building site than a place to look after vulnerable migrants.”

* Read the Annual Report 2020-21 here.

* Source: HM Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales