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Category: Covid-19

PRT comment: CJJI report on Covid recovery

Monitoring human rights in prisons during the Covid-19 pandemic

Christmas and an uncertain year ahead

“Devastating” impact of Covid-19 restrictions on women prisoners’ mental health

Women in prison have revealed the devastating impact of Covid-19 restrictions on their mental health and wellbeing, in a briefing launched today by the Prison Reform Trust.

Based on evidence from women in prison from May 2020 to May 2021, as well as supporting evidence from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and other sources, the briefing looks at women’s experiences of prison during the first and second waves of the pandemic.

It highlights the consequences for women of a restricted regime amounting to ‘prolonged solitary confinement’, where they were often locked up for 23 hours a day without access to work, training or rehabilitation, and were not able to receive visits from family and loved ones.

One woman said:

“Never in the six years of my sentence so far has lockdown been this severe or long…Mental health is deteriorating for me and [those] around me. Most were coping but over the past 2 to 3 weeks there is a lot of unrest. The worst cases are getting put in seg and we hear the screaming which is awful.”

Another woman said:

“Mental health is a massive issue here in prisons and there is no duty of care for it, we are simply given a colouring pack. Depression, anxiety, discomfort, boredom and comfort eating, the ladies are piling the weight on. I feel I’m in the passenger seat of an out of control car are we are about to hit a brick wall.”

The importance of family contact, especially with children, emerges as a particularly important theme in the report. At the time the evidence was gathered for the briefing, social visits were suspended, and although measures to compensate for the lack of face-to-face visits were put in place, these were unable to fully make up for the loss.

One woman said:

“Personally I feel contact with family/friends is really hard. To start with, we were only allowed 10 mins phone time a day, which has now progressed to 20 mins a day, which isn’t enough…I think everyone’s main issue is family contact and maintaining family ties. This includes family members outside. They find it upsetting and are as frustrated as us.”

A family member of a woman in prison reported:

“Video calls are 30 mins but only once a month. Her visit entitlement is almost once a week so this is a far cry from that and there has been four months without any contact.”

Some women also felt that technology for video calls was designed to give priority to security rather than enhancing ties between mothers and their young children.

One woman said:

“I have spoken to a number of the ladies who have experienced purple visits and the overall feedback was ‘brilliant’. [But…] the software is extremely sensitive and freezes quite a bit…The women and their family members find this frustrating.”

The briefing highlights areas of good practice, implemented by individual establishments, to make the situation more bearable. These include increased provision to call and write to family members, access to exercise and other activities, and kindness from staff.

As prisons emerge from pandemic restrictions, the briefing suggests what prisons should do as they restore a normal regime. These include:

  • Increase the number and duration of visits, providing open air visits and physical contact; but maintain phone credits and video calls
  • Provide support in the aftermath of visits that leave painful emotions
  • Enable staff and prisoners to discuss how they have been affected by the pandemic and the regime
  • Run wing meetings to gather the views of prisoners about what is most important to them and how to proceed
  • Create or maintain peer support workers and Covid-19 wellbeing reps and support them in their roles
  • Encourage officers to maintain empathy and caring in their work with prisoners
  • Explore how the recovery process needs to differ for women
  • Raise the level of mental health support in prison permanently.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“As prisons emerge from Covid-19 restrictions, recovery plans must be based on evidence about how women have been affected. Recovery in prisons is going slower than in the community, and is even more fragile. It’s crucial that the measures taken to mitigate the impact on women and their families—such as additional phone credit—are not wound down, and that women in prison are involved in planning for what comes next. But this report should also cause the government to rethink its plans to expose even more women, typically convicted of non-violent crime, to the needless suffering of imprisonment.”

Click here to download a copy of the briefing.

PRT calls for open and transparent consultation on future plans for prison conditions

Prison Reform Trust director, Peter Dawson has written to Jo Farrar, CEO of HM Prison and Probation Service and Second Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, to highlight the confusion surrounding plans to reform prison conditions.

The Daily Mail reported last month that a Ministry of Justice “source” expected a White Paper on prisons to be published later this year, and offered a simplistic and misleading summary of what might be learned from the experience of prisoners over the last 15 months.

In the letter, Peter Dawson writes:

“We are only too pleased to work closely with officials as policy is developed…and in particular to help the department hear from prisoners. But we are deeply suspicious of these constructive and candid conversations being presented as a sufficient process to inform a White Paper on prisons, especially when the press is being fed what appears to be advance notice of a policy decision to reduce the time prisoners will spend unlocked.”

Planning for a future beyond the pandemic is an opportunity to reset policy on imprisonment and our prison system from first principles, but a project of this importance and scale demands wider scrutiny. The letter seeks assurance from Jo Farrar that “if there is to be a White Paper, it will be preceded by a full and transparent process of public consultation, based on clear proposals about which there is a genuine desire to listen and adjust if the arguments for doing so are persuasive”.

The evidence submitted to our CAPPTIVE project, and the findings of independent inspectors, have highlighted the significant toll on our prisons over the last 16 months. It is crucial that any plan for the future starts from the recognition that, despite the best efforts of prison managers and staff, our prison system has failed to an unprecedented degree to deliver humane or constructive custody during the pandemic. Any plan’s starting point must be that such a failure cannot be repeated.

The letter sets out key principles for future prison regimes, including:

  • an end to overcrowding and the enforced sharing of cells within a set time frame;
  • the permanent closure of prisons and parts of prisons that are no longer fit for purpose; and
  • the “principle of normality” in regime design, meaning that the prison day should be modelled on life outside prison. Specifically, people should be unlocked unless there is a good reason not to.

The letter also proposes that Governors should have the right not to accept a prisoner where they consider that their life may be at risk, and proposes a range of minimum standards to guarantee the delivery of government policies and commitments. It concludes with a number of practical recommendations, including:

  • the provision of in-cell telephony, controlled internet access and in-cell ICT across the prison estate;
  • privacy locks on all cell doors, so people can keep themselves and their property safe;
  • sufficient staffing resources to allow for prisoners to be unlocked for the equivalent of a normal day for an adult in the community—with sufficient paid work or education provision for a normal working week of 30 hours;
  • better pay to reduce prisoner debt; and
  • a significant increase in the provision of specialist mental health support.

The prison service has developed an expertise in making do with the inadequate physical and staffing resources which it receives, but the consequences of that approach have been exposed by the pandemic. The ambitions the government holds for a rehabilitative system cannot be delivered for as long as it fails to acknowledge the fundamental problems which only the politicians can solve.

Click here to download a copy of the letter.

Projected 25% increase in prison numbers will undermine post-pandemic prison recovery

Prisoner numbers in England and Wales are projected to rise by one quarter (20,000) over the next five years. But there are no plans either to reduce overcrowding or close prisons that are clearly unfit for purpose. Efforts by the prison service to recover from the impact of the global pandemic will be fatally undermined as a result, according to a new report published today (5 July 2021) by the Prison Reform Trust.

The report, Prison: the facts, highlights Ministry of Justice prison population projections that predict a rise to 98,700 people from the current level of 77,912 (4 June 2021) by 2026. This is due to the impact of inflationary sentencing policies, including proposals in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill currently before Parliament, the recruitment of 20,000 police officers, which is expected to increase charge volumes, and the recovery of the courts as Covid-19 restrictions subside.

The government itself has admitted that its punitive policies are likely to have a negligible effect on levels of offending. The impact assessment of the PCSC Bill acknowledges that there is “limited evidence that the combined set of measures will deter offenders long term or reduce overall crime.”

This predicted increase in prison numbers over a short period comes after one of the most challenging periods in the history of the prison service. For the past 15 months and counting, as a result of public health restrictions imposed as a consequence of the Covid 19 pandemic, the great majority of prisoners have been locked up for at least 23 hours a day, with almost no training, work or education and very limited family contact.

No-one knows what the toll will be on mental and physical health caused by the prolonged periods many prisoners are spending in de facto solitary confinement. However, such conditions are likely to cause lasting damage to those currently held in prison, undermining their progress made towards a law-abiding future life, weakening family links and increasing the danger and volatility of prisons. In an overcrowded, under-resourced prison system, the risk of having to return to these inhumane measures will continue.

At a time when the prison service ought to be focussed on recovery, instead its attention will be diverted by the need to accommodate the projected rise in prison numbers driven largely by the government’s own criminal justice policies.

The government expects to build a total of 18,000 new prison places, understood to comprise HMPs Five Wells and Glen Parva and an additional 10,000 places, with the remaining places to be met by the construction of four new prisons; the expansion of a further four prisons; and refurbishment of the existing prison estate.

However, these plans need to be seen in the context of the struggles of previous governments to meet much more modest prison building targets. A programme to build 10,000 cells by 2020, announced by the government in 2015, delivered just 206 spaces by its original deadline.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“These facts and figures reveal the devastating impact the past 15 months have had on prisoners and their families. But instead of ensuring that such a calamity can never happen again, ministers are determined to put a rocket booster under prison numbers. The government accepts that its punitive approach is unlikely to reduce crime, yet is willing to find £4bn to fund its addiction to prison. With no target either for ending overcrowding or for closing prisons that are plainly unfit for purpose, the people at the sharp end will continue to live and work in a dangerous system, as vulnerable to the unexpected as it was in March of last year.”

The pandemic: One year on

Today marks a year since the announcement that prisons in England and Wales were to temporarily close to visitors, following government instructions for people to stay at home.

At that time, few could have imagined that the dramatic restrictions, introduced to safeguard against the predicted widespread loss of life in prisons, would still be in place a year on.

Our CAPPTIVE project, created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, has heard from hundreds of people in prison about the reality of daily life and near total isolation behind cell doors for the last 12 months.

The stoicism and solidarity between prisoners and staff, often under intolerable pressures, have provided light in the darkness. But nothing can dull the pain of full days spent in isolation and inactivity.

No-one yet knows what the lasting damage to people’s mental and physical health of that unprecedented regime will be. As the lockdown in prisons has stretched on— whilst the wider community outside looks ahead to the easing of restrictions—those in prison remain fearful and unsure of what the future holds.


Prisons will face huge challenges as they work to re-establish normal regimes. But one thing the pandemic has shown is that rehabilitation and public safety don’t come from locking people up in 9 by 6ft cells all day, every day. These come only from a way of life in prison that allows relationships between staff and prisoners to form and for trust to be built.

As we mark this most unhappy of anniversaries the Prison Reform Trust remains here for people in prison and their families at this extraordinary time, and will continue to be there for as long as it takes.

You can find out more about our work during the pandemic by clicking here.

Blog: After what prisoners have endured in the pandemic, plans to increase sentences are inexplicable

The pandemic has shown that rehabilitation and public safety don’t come from locking people up all day, every day

Faced in March 2020 with the possibility of many thousands of deaths in prison from Covid-19, the Government’s health experts advised that a significant reduction in prison numbers was needed.

Doing so would have afforded prison staff the vital breathing space to protect lives whilst also protecting efforts for rehabilitation. Instead, the Government decided against that advice to release just 316 people out of a total prison population of nearly 84,000 over the course of the next six months.

Enforced isolation for nearly 24 hours a day within the confines of a six by nine-foot prison cell— in many cases shared with another person — became the new normal.

Prisons, many already overcrowded and in poor condition following years of more punitive sentencing laws and inadequate investment, were ill-equipped to respond to an epidemic.

Now, ministers are seeking to introduce measures through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will lengthen sentences and inflate our prison population still further.

Knowing what the people who live and work in prisons have had to endure over the last year this is inexplicable, and as one of the ministers responsible confirmed —unevidenced.

As the health experts revealed back in March, prisons are uniquely susceptible to the transmission of infection. Narrow corridors, shared showers, and crowded exercise yards, as well as routine security operations such as rub-downs and cell inspections all heighten the risk of prisons as potential ‘super-spreaders’ of a potent and airborne virus.

Research published by UCL earlier this month revealed that people in prison had a Covid-19 related death rate over three times higher than the general population, and that cases of the virus are also significantly higher in prisons.

As staff turn up to work from their homes, they are likely to come into contact and interact with many different prisoners. With inadequate space to maintain social distancing and poor ventilation it’s easy to see how the virus could begin to take hold.

Fast forward 12 months and prisoners still remain confined to their cells all day – a year spent in conditions which amount to solitary confinement. Family and legal visits have been suspended; classrooms, gyms, libraries, and workshops closed; offending behaviour programmes and sentence planning have been placed on hold.

One prisoner told the Prison Reform Trust’s CAPPTIVE project: “It’s almost as if we have been forgotten about, as if we are not as important as the outside world, as if our life doesn’t mean as much.”

The Government’s response has averted the worst predictions of loss of life from the virus. But as the Chief Inspector of Prisons has warned, and our own research conducted throughout the pandemic has shown, this has come at an extraordinary cost.

Left with little to occupy their time but their own thoughts, prisoners’ emotional and mental health have suffered. The full scale of the impact will take time to become fully apparent, and longer still to remedy. Another prisoner explained: “[We] are simply given a colouring pack. Depression, anxiety, discomfort, boredom and comfort eating… I feel I’m in the passenger seat of an out of control car and we are about to hit a brick wall.”

The stoicism and solidarity between prisoners and staff, often under intolerable pressures, have provided light in the darkness. But nothing can dull the pain of full days spent in isolation and inactivity.

The lockdown in prisons has meant that people are not getting the necessary support to resolve the very things that got them there in the first place. Prisoners have not been able to participate on offending behaviour programmes. These programmes are one way in which prisoners can demonstrate reduced risk to the parole board. For those who are reliant on Parole Board approval before they can be released, this could mean extra months or years spent in prison for a reason wholly beyond their control.

The last year has been hard on the whole country but knowing that our loved ones are a phone or Zoom call away has enabled us to still feel connected whilst apart. For prisoners, keeping in contact has been much more difficult. The long overdue expansion of phones in cells, has allowed those who have access to them to keep in regular contact and to check on the welfare of those family members left behind.

Prisoners are also now entitled to one 30-minute video call per month. This is a small step forward but needs to go much further. When so many of us have relied on the support of technology to aid us through this pandemic, the benefits are obvious. As one prisoner said: “I’m a life serving prisoner. I get my hope and joy by seeing my family. If it wasn’t for an in cell phone, I’d have turned insane by now or done something terrible to myself.”

Prisons will face huge challenges as they work to re-establish normal regimes. But the findings from inspectors, as well as our own research, suggest that trying to manage the risk of Covid by imposing solitary confinement is unsustainable.

The pandemic has shown that rehabilitation and public safety don’t come from locking people up all day, every day. These can come only from a way of life in prison that allows relationships between staff and prisoners to form and for trust to be built.

Dr Kimmett Edgar is head of research at the Prison Reform Trust. Alex Hewson, senior policy and communications officer and Paula Harriott, head of prisoner engagement also contributed to this report.

This article was originally publised by the i

PRT comment: HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ thematic report on the impact of the Covid-19

Commenting on the findings of today’s (11 February) thematic report on the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown in prisons by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“The Chief Inspector’s report shines a light on the hidden suffering Covid-19 has caused in prisons. Saving lives has come at a huge price for prisoners and their families.

“For all the heroic efforts of prison managers and staff, we should remember that their task has been made harder by the overcrowded and dilapidated condition of our prisons before the pandemic began. It is inexplicable that ministers will shortly introduce legislation that will inflate our prison population still further, knowing what the people who live and work in prisons have had to endure over the last year.”

A CAPPTIVE snapshot of life under Covid