Covid-19 cases remain very low, but prisoners spending long hours in cells
Only a very small number of staff and no prisoners have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Bullingdon.
However, the Board’s 2019/20 annual report highlights how prison life since start of the pandemic has inevitably become more restricted to reduce the risk of virus transmission.
Many prisoners are spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells to maintain social distancing and following a reduction in activities. The negative impact of this regime has been the loss of opportunities for education, employment, exercise and other undertakings that improve health and wellbeing.
In general, the prison has made every effort to minimise the limitations imposed as a result of Covid-19 rules. Prisoners have been given additional credits to use on calls they are allowed to make from their cells using telephones installed last year. This helped to mitigate the banning of social visits from family and friends. Restricted social visits and video calls for prisoners using digital tablets were introduced in August but the take-up to date has been rather disappointing.
In addition, staff have been distributing paper-based ‘distraction’ and education packs, providing snacks to supplement meals, and making it easier for prisoners to buy additional goods.
It is notable that since lockdown levels of violence and self-harm, previously high, have reduced significantly. The IMB regards this as a success.
Overall, prisoners are treated fairly but limited resources have affected their management. Overcrowding remains an issue and the Board questions whether the doubling-up of many prisoners in cells designed for one occupant is humane.
Despite the unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic, staff and officers continue to show commitment to maintain a positive and decent environment. The prison should be commended for managing an effective system for keeping new arrivals in a period of quarantine, and for continuing essential operations throughout these difficult times.
Other issues highlighted in the report covering the period from 1st July 2019 to 30th June 2020 include:
* Violence levels which remained high prior to lockdowns in March, with an even larger number of drugs and weapons found this year than last.
* The widespread loss of prisoners’ property, both within Bullingdon and on transfer from other establishments. This can contribute to frustration, stress and violence within the prison.
However, prisoners have benefited from positive improvements and examples of good practice. These include:
* The completion of a new suite for prisoners appearing at court hearings by video-link which reduces unnecessary movements in and out of the establishment.
* A weekly Safety Intervention Meeting to review the care and management of individual prisoners.
* Better management of the SSCU (segregation unit), with prisoners leaving cells to collect meals from servery.
The Board dealt with a total of 677 applications from prisoners and carried out 353 visits during the 12 months covered by this report.
Vicki Talbot, IMB Bullingdon Chair, said: “Both prisoners and staff continue to face very challenging circumstances as a result of coronavirus. Their response to these difficulties is praiseworthy, especially measures such as extra credits for in-cell phone calls.
“It’s also important not to neglect issues which are unrelated to the pandemic. Staff levels must be maintained at adequate levels for the future and training enhanced. These are matters which the Board intends to raise with the Minister.”