Independent monitors flag ‘damaging effect’ of Covid lockdown on education and mental health for prisoners under 18

Concerns raised about 40 minutes out of cell daily and ‘painfully slow’ return of teaching 

Pre-existing problems with education and rehabilitation for under-18s in England were exacerbated by the Covid lockdown, says a report by independent prison monitors published today.

Pre-Covid, understaffing and a lack of resources remained a serious concern and the rehabilitation of many young people continued to fall short, says the 2019/20 annual report, summarising the findings of Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) across the youth estate in England for the period from 1 June 2019 to 31 August 2020.

These problems were made worse by the initial lockdown restrictions introduced in March 2020, which led to some young people spending as little as 40 minutes a day out of their cell, and almost all education being stopped.

Pre-Covid, positive developments included:

  • Enhanced arrangements for young people to maintain family contact.
  • Some improvements in the quality of the support processes for young people at risk of suicide or self-harm.
  • Welcome changes in healthcare provision, including work to improve the quality of care.
  • Some improvements to buildings and facilities.

However, there were also some fundamental issues that needed tackling:

  • Levels of violence remained too high, with the need to keep some young people apart, and some young people isolating themselves in their rooms due to safety fears
  • A national shortage of secure mental health beds, so that those with complex mental health needs often spent prolonged periods in segregation
  • Poor support from local authorities for looked after children.
  • Unsatisfactory and under-resourced education provision.
  • Extremely poor central sentence planning, with some over-18-year-olds left in limbo and in segregation for months awaiting transfer to the adult estate, because they cannot be held with under-18s.

While preventive measures during the Covid pandemic reduced the predicted number of infections and deaths, IMBs reported on the damaging cumulative impact on young people:

  • Between March and May 2020, young people spent at least 22 hours a day locked in their room. At HMYOI Cookham Wood, daily time out of room was as little as 40 minutes.
  • Progression was put on hold and specialist psychology services were withdrawn, with a service for acute cases resuming in July.
  • Between March and August 2020, education provision was lacking or poorly delivered in all four YOIs. While this began to improve as lockdown restrictions eased, it was not at the same rate as in the community.
  • Limited classroom-based teaching generally resumed in August, but was still below the weekly minimum of 15 hours stipulated prior to the pandemic.

More recent updates from Boards indicate that progress is still slow in many of these areas:

  • Education is still not back at pre-COVID levels, with at least two Boards reporting that this is driven by national, rather than local, decisions.
  • The easing of lockdown restrictions in recent months and more time out of room were welcomed by Boards but also led to increased levels of violence at some YOIs.

Anne Finlayson, Chair of the IMB YOI group said:

“Pre-existing concerns over young people’s welfare and progression were inevitably further exacerbated by the pandemic. With classroom education ceasing, the experience of vulnerable young people in custody was not reflective of those in the community, who were still provided with face-to-face education during lockdown.

“Prison staff worked hard to provide emotional support for these young people but progress in bringing back full education and vocational provision has been painfully slow. The cumulative effect of lockdown will be felt for some time. Moving back to a culture of support and rehabilitation is essential, to reduce their risk of re-offending.

“Boards will continue to monitor and report on both day-today outcomes and, where possible, the longer-term impact of the restricted regime on young people.”