IMB reports on progress amid the impact of Covid-19 on prison life

The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for HMP Stoke Heath has today published its annual report for 2020-21.

The prison has faced an unprecedented challenge to keep prisoners safe in what has been a difficult year for us all. Despite enormous efforts, Stoke Heath reported one of the most serious outbreaks in the prison service during the second wave of Covid-19.

Public Health England considered Stoke Heath’s response to the outbreak to have been managed exceptionally well.

Notwithstanding this challenge, the Board considers that HMP/YOI Stoke Heath continues to provide a safe environment for prisoners, with healthcare services that are well led and responsive. The Board remains satisfied that prisoners are treated fairly and humanely within the constraints of the restricted regime necessary to manage Covid-19. However, given the impact on vocational training resulting from cuts to the prison’s education budget over the past three years, the Board questions whether Stoke Heath can deliver against its objective of the rehabilitation of prisoners.

The report highlights a number of significant developments including:

  • The introduction of in-cell telephony, highlighted by the Board last year as a key priority. This development will impact positively on prisoners’ wellbeing.
  • A body scanner installed in reception to detect illicit items being brought into the prison, reducing the availability and use of illegal substances.
  • Telemedicine is being established. This will shorten the waiting time for prisoners’ consultations by enabling them to take place remotely.

However, the Board has significant concerns about the following:

  • The heating and hot water system is not fit for purpose and causes extreme temperatures in the cells, impacting adversely on prisoners’ health and wellbeing. The Board highlights replacement of the system as a priority, requiring significant capital investment from the prison service.
  • Inadequate funding for education and training has led to low rates of purposeful activity in the prison and very low levels of employment upon release. This severely compromises the prison’s ability to achieve its aims as a training and resettlement establishment.
  • The prison service system used to track prisoners’ property on transfer is woefully inadequate. This is a longstanding issue which has been highlighted by the Board over a number of years, but there has been no discernible progress.

The Chair of Stoke Heath Independent Monitoring Board, Donna Withington, said:

 

‘‘The prison has faced a very challenging year, but in the face of such high Covid-19 infection rates in the community at large and in the prison during the second wave, it has done a remarkable job to keep prisoners safe. We have, nevertheless, seen three deaths in custody this year, including two from Covid-19, and we offer our deepest sympathies to the families of those who lost their lives.

It is notable that in such a difficult year we are still able to report on some very positive developments. I would highlight the advent of in-cell telephony, which the Board called for last year. This improvement will enable prisoners to maintain better contact with their families, essential for their wellbeing whilst in custody.  However, we remain very concerned about the inadequate funding for education and training, which will inevitably impact on the chances of prisoners’ successful resettlement.

As far as practicable, the Board has been able to maintain contact with facets of prison life throughout the year, with the support of the Governor and staff.  We can report that the prison is a well-managed environment where prisoners respected early changes to the regime in response to Covid-19. However, as Covid-19 restrictions continued, prisoners increasingly felt the negative impact of longer hours locked in their cells. The repercussions on prisoners’ successful resettlement, mental health and general wellbeing may be far reaching’’.