A year of two halves at Chelmsford prison

In its annual report for the period September 2019 to August 2020, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Chelmsford prison records the huge impact of the pandemic on the prisoners and staff during the second half of that period.

Covid-19

  • Not a single prisoner became infected by the virus while at the prison, but this came at the cost of a regime so restrictive that it would not be countenanced in normal times.
  • Following national guidelines, all new prisoners were quarantined for 14 days and the lack of opportunities for work, education and even exercise meant that most prisoners spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells.
  • Social visits were cancelled until mid-June when virtual visits began, but there was little opportunity for the vital work necessary to prepare prisoners for release.
  • The Governor and her staff made great efforts to ameliorate the negative effects of the regime, but boredom and frustration initially led to an increase in violence and self-harm.

All of this was in stark contrast to the first half of the year, in which the Board noted an improvement in the follow areas:

  • A reduction in the number of incidents of violence, self-harm, and use of force.
  • A marked improvement in the behaviour of younger prisoners
  • The previous year’s efforts to get more prisoners to education and work continued; externally provided vocational training continued to take place.
  • and Refurbishment work which had started in the previous year was completed and made for a better environment in all but one of the wings.

The IMB still however had significant concerns about the following:

  • The poor condition of the segregation unit in A-wing and the one area of the old part of the prison where refurbishment work had not started during the period covered by the report.
  • The continuing overcrowding, with large numbers of prisoners still having to share cells which are simply unsuitable to meet the requirements of decency and respect.
  • The proportion of prisoners being discharged with an offer of accommodation remained low with only 28% of prisoners leaving on that basis, at the end of the reporting period.
  • The use of the prison’s healthcare beds for prisoners with often serious mental health issues, for whom a secure mental health facility would seem to be a more appropriate location.