Prisons remained ‘tightly stretched’ pre-Covid, says independent national monitoring report 2019/20

Move from containment back to rehabilitation post-lockdown ‘demanding but essential’

Prisons were already ‘tightly stretched’ pre-Covid and some promising initiatives were already stalling, says the 2019/20 national report from independent monitoring boards, published today.

The report commends the efforts of the prison service to contain the spread of the virus. However, moving from containment, with prisoners spending 23 hours a day in their cells, back to rehabilitation, is essential and will be demanding.

This will also require cross-government working to address systemic issues such as mental health support and accommodation after release.

The report summarises the findings of prison monitoring boards in England and Wales before and during the Covid pandemic.

National IMB Chair Dame Anne Owers concludes that while there were some improvements in the period before March 2020, there are still fundamental problems which need tackling.

Pre-Covid, improvements included

  • better and faster maintenance and repairs in some prisons,
  • more frontline prison officers, though continuing concerns about the inexperience and retention of staff
  • the impact of the Ten Prisons Project on preventing drugs getting into prisons.

However, boards continued to express serious disquiet about:

  • the deterioration of the key worker system, supposed to provide prisoners with 45 minutes a week of tailored one-to-one support
  • little evidence in most prisons that work on equality and diversity was driving change or was central to delivery, even where data showed disproportionality
  • prisoner safety, with rises in both self-harm and violence in many prisons, often driven by drugs and debt; there were particular concerns about the safety and stability of prisons holding young people under 18, and self- harm among women
  • the number and kind of prisoners, especially those with serious mental health conditions, who spent prolonged periods in segregation

The report also says that two major underlying issues, that require cross-government working, are still not being addressed:

  • the number of, and treatment for, prisoners with severe mental illness
  • the fact that too many prisoners are released without stable accommodation to go to, making it much more likely that they will reoffend

During the Covid lockdown, IMBs continued to monitor prison conditions, mostly remotely, including setting up a new freephone line for prisoners to raise concerns, which attracted over 3,000 calls.

Boards noted that measures taken to contain the virus hugely reduced the predicted number of infections and deaths, and that staff acted to mitigate the impact of most prisoners being locked in their cells for 23 hours a day; prisons remained relatively calm and safe places.

However, IMBs also reported the damaging cumulative impact of being locked in cells 23 hours a day on prisoners’ mental and physical health and their prospects of rehabilitation.

Dame Anne said:

“As prisons emerge from lockdown, it is important to learn lessons, both from the ‘old normal’ and the experience during Covid. The focus since March has been containment: of the virus and therefore of prisoners. Moving back to a culture of rehabilitation is essential, though demanding: both to support prisoners’ wellbeing and also to provide the interventions and activities that can help reduce reoffending, which is in all of our interests.

“In the process, there is a chance to tackle some longstanding problems, such as the lack of sufficient mental health provision, and secure accommodation, outside prison. These are not issues that the criminal justice system can solve.

“Over the coming months, Boards will be closely monitoring the pace and impact of recovery.”