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Category: Healthcare

Robert Buckland responds to PRT and Howard League letter on Covid plans for prison population rise

The Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform have received a brief response to our letter to the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, requesting details of the ministry’s plans ahead of an expected increase in people being sent to prison as courts start to resume normal business.

For all the billions that have been promised for new prisons, it is clear that there is no plan for a prison estate free of overcrowding, despite the misery people have suffered during  the pandemic in prisons holding too many people too close together.

Click here to read his response.

Robert Buckland responds to PRT and Howard League letter on the government’s response to Covid-19

We were pleased to receive a response from the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland this week to our joint letter with the Howard League of 13 October.

His response is full and quite detailed. It shows that the prison service has made a thorough and genuine attempt to quickly learn the lessons from its initial response to the pandemic in the spring. It has done so not just through its own research but by taking on board what we in our CAPPTIVE reports(1)(2), and many other organisations, have been telling it. No-one is pretending that everything is as we would want it, and the adjusted approach the prison service wants to take now is dependent on staffing and on how the virus progresses in individual prisons and in the community. But we can point to some significant improvements at least in what the prison service is trying to deliver:

  • Many more in-cell phones.

  • More and better PPE for staff and prisoners.

  • More testing of both staff and prisoners.

  • Continuation of compassionate release, albeit in a small number of cases.

  • Continuation of phone credit, free video calls and compassionate iPad access.

  • Updating its website with the latest information.

  • Proposed weekly public bulletin.

  • More local discretion and a policy of keeping more regime activities running where a prison is able to do so.

  • Better policy intentions on face to face education and visits for children.

  • Acknowledgement of the priority for people coming up to parole.

What the Lord Chancellor’s letter did not do, however, was answer the question about planning for the moment when prison numbers start to rise again, as courts reduce their backlog, and the government’s 20,000 extra police staff start to hit the streets.

The case for an early release scheme is still overwhelming, so we have written back to the Lord Chancellor asking him to set out what his plan is to avoid the all too predictable next crisis on prison numbers. You can read that letter by clicking here.

Peter Dawson

PRT & Howard League letter to Robert Buckland—transparency and reassurance needed as winter approaches

The Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform have written to the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland today in the light of the rapidly developing situation in prisons in relation to outbreaks of Covid-19.

The letter calls for greater transparency, to ensure that prisoners and their families are able to understand the basis on which decisions are being taken, including the publication of evidence and advice received by ministers on the risks of transmission in prisons; and the different measures taken to contain the spread of Covid-19.

It also highlights a number of policy decisions which the charities believe could and should be taken now to reassure prisoners and their families about the difficult months ahead. These include:

  • devising a much simpler, more generous and therefore more effective scheme for the conditional early release of prisoners to make space within the estate to improve infection control;
  • the continuation of additional phone credit, free video calls and access on compassionate grounds to communication through electronic means; and
  • ensuring that opportunities for progression for adult prisoners whose prospects of release on parole are prioritised.

Click here to read a copy of the letter

Lockdown conditions leave prisoners at risk of serving longer sentences

Lockdown conditions in prisons have effectively ended opportunities for prisoners to take part in rehabilitation activities and progress in their sentences.

For the nearly 11,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences (9,000 unreleased; 2,000 recalled), this could lead to them spending significantly longer in prison than they might have otherwise. This is because they may be unable to demonstrate to the Parole Board that they have taken part in activities to reduce their risk.

A further 5,815 people serving extended determinate sentences, whose release is dependent on the Parole Board up until the end of their custodial term, could also find themselves spending longer in prison because of a lack of access to rehabilitation.

The uncertainty is leading to increasing despair and hopelessness and putting a significant strain on the mental health and wellbeing of prisoners, already suffering as a result of lockdown conditions, a new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

The briefing is the second of a series that the Prison Reform Trust is publishing as part of its CAPPTIVE project, exploring the experience of prisoners and their families during the pandemic.

It draws on evidence covering 85 prisons in England and Wales, and is based on the contributions of 117 serving prisoners and 25 families, interviews with legal and criminal justice practitioners, as well as the findings of independent inspections at 15 prisons conducted during the pandemic. It examines the effects of Covid-19 restrictions on daily life in prison and how it has affected peoples’ ability to successfully work towards their release. It also considers the quality of regimes under lockdown and the reactions of prisoners and staff to the pandemic.

The briefing reveals that activities to help reduce the risk of reoffending and prepare people to lead law abiding lives had all but stopped, and that this was potentially delaying the release of people back into the community.

The ‘exceptional regime management plan’ introduced in all prisons on 24 March saw people confined to cells for 23 hours per day or more; family and legal visits stopped; classrooms and workshops closed; offending behaviour programmes and sentence planning placed on hold; and release on temporary licence almost entirely suspended.

At the time the briefing was written, prisoners in England and Wales had been confined to their cells for 23 hours or more every day for almost five months. These changes mean that, through no fault of their own, prisoners cannot make progress on their sentence plans and risk being refused parole or transfer to a lower security prison as a result.

One indeterminate sentenced prisoner said:

“With no job, no courses, I worry about my sentence planning, [and] the impact that this will have on my parole hearing.”

Another said:

“For myself it’s brought more uncertainty within uncertainty, because I am serving a short tariff IPP I had not long been on an offender behaviour course before lockdown (KAIZEN), and I was due for parole sometime after September, I was told but I never had a date which was eating away at my mental health and now I’m sure that I probably won’t see a parole board this year without completing this objective.”

An extended determinate sentenced prisoner said:

“There are some problems with progression in rehabilitation. Some prisoners in here including myself are serving EDS [Extended Determinate Sentences] sentences and have had our paroles refused due to non-completion of programmes, myself it’s BBR. [Building Better Relationships] but it is not possible to complete them due to the lockdown, social distancing and no programmes being available.”

This uncertainty is placing significant strain of the mental health of those prisoners stuck inside and their families in the community. Simon Creighton, of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, described the profound impact of the cessation of offender behaviour programmes on mental health:

“You are combining what is already one of the most stressful point of a prisoner’s life [parole] with making the conditions appalling and knowing that they’re not making any progress. That is having a really serious effect on people’s mental health.”

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

“No-one yet knows what the lasting damage to people’s mental and physical health of that unprecedented regime will be. What we do know is that the loss of opportunities for progression and rehabilitation during this period means that prisons have not been delivering one of the core statutory purposes of sentencing. For many prisoners whose release is dependent on a risk assessment, that is likely to mean extra months or years spent in prison for a reason wholly beyond their control.

“The purposes of prison include working to ensure that the person emerges less likely to reoffend than when they went in; and that depends on opportunities for meaningful activities that develop skills as well as self-esteem. So long as the ‘regime’ for any prisoner consists of 23 hour days in cell, the public are being short-changed on their investment in prisons. The prison service has committed to a ‘rehabilitative culture’. Now is the time to double down on that commitment.”

Click here to download a copy of the briefing.

PRT and Howard League letter to Robert Buckland—Covid-19 and prisons: the next phase

The Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform have written to Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, following his response on 1 June.

The letter warns that whilst things have moved on considerably in the community since we last wrote, for the 80,000 men, women and children in prison, life has not changed significantly since the lockdown regime was introduced on 24 March 2020, some 80 days ago.

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

“The combined efforts of the people who live and work in our prisons have so far contained outbreaks of Covid 19. But the price has been 3 months of unregulated solitary confinement for two thirds of prisoners. That can’t continue, especially as restrictions outside prisons are eased. Ministers must set a new and more humane minimum standard below which the treatment of a fellow human being cannot fall.”

Click here to read a copy of the letter

PRT comment: Government plans to ease prison restrictions in response to Covid-19

Commenting on the publication of guidance outlining how the government plans to ease coronavirus-related restrictions in prisons, Peter Dawson, Director of Prison Reform Trust said:

“The pandemic continues to make massive demands on the endurance of the people who live and work in prison. What this roadmap misses out is the most important way in which politicians could actually reduce those demands. Above all, the system needs to be caring for fewer people. But maintaining prison capacity is put on the same level as preserving life. What that means in practice is that ministers are putting a desire to continue locking people up on a par with saving life in prison. That can’t be right.”

PRT and Howard League publish government Covid-19 documents and call for further urgent action

The two leading prison reform groups in the country have today (Wednesday 6 May) published more than a dozen key documents that shed further light on the government’s response to coronavirus in prisons in England and Wales.

Lawyers for the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice last month, threatening legal action over the government’s failure to release more people from prison during the pandemic. Now the charities have been granted permission by the government to publish its reply, including enclosures that provide more information about developments in the situation behind bars and the advice given to ministers.

At the same time, the charities have written another letter to the Secretary of State, warning that the current conditions that are said to have been containing the virus so far are unsustainable in the medium to longer term.

The documents reveal that the government was warned in late March that as many as 3,500 people in prison could die during the pandemic. This is in stark contrast to updated advice published by the Ministry of Justice a month later, which estimated that 100 people would die.

In their reply to the charities, the government’s lawyers confirmed that the programme of releases had not been abandoned. They stated that, as of 28 April, 200 people in prison had been approved for temporary release and a further 300 were being considered with further information awaited. However, the programme of temporary releases remains very limited.

While the charities have not issued judicial review proceedings at this time, they continue to monitor the position closely. Their latest letter to the Secretary of State, sent today, calls on the government to publish advice promptly in future, to reveal its plans to ease restrictions in prisons, and to extend the temporary release scheme.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“Our vital role as civil society organisations is to hold the government to account. The documents that we are publishing today would never have seen the light of day, were it not for our legal intervention. Transparency is essential in a time of crisis.

“We also have a responsibility to keep probing, to hold ministers to their promises, and to call for action. That is what we are doing now.

“As things stand, the government strategy in prisons rests on levels of isolation that amount to prolonged solitary confinement. It is neither sustainable nor humane.

“Positive steps to create space in prisons would make them more purposeful and save lives.”

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

“The documents we are publishing show that what appears to be containment of the virus in prisons at present still rests on the most fragile of foundations.

“Sticking to the current regime of almost universal bang up simply isn’t sustainable for the next 12 months. And without government intervention, the prison population is bound to return to previous levels as courts come back into action. A much more generous early release scheme remains an essential part of what is needed to keep people safe.

“We welcome the invitation to work together. Everyone who lives or works in prisons has a stake in doing so. For that to happen, what matters now is that the government pro-actively shares its plans for the future and the advice on which they are based.”

The charities’ letter states: “It is clear that the risk [from coronavirus] is only contained while admissions to custody remain low and prisoners remain effectively in solitary confinement. That is unsustainable for any long period. Yet it is anticipated that these conditions will need to be maintained for a further 12 months if the virus is to be controlled. That risks serious harm to tens of thousands of prisoners and provides further evidence for the need to progress with the programme of releases.”

The letter goes on to say: “The restrictions on the prison regime mean that people in prison are either in overcrowded conditions or prolonged solitary confinement. The damage inflicted on individuals’ psychological health and prospects of progression by current regimes will become intolerable. The courts will start to resume work and crime is likely to rise as lockdown restrictions in the community are lifted. Inter-prison transfers will become essential in order to make space in local prisons.”

Confirmed cases of coronavirus have been recorded in more than half of prisons in England and Wales. As of 5pm on Monday (4 May), 362 prisoners have tested positive across 74 prisons. A total of 401 prison staff, working in 67 prisons, and 13 Prisoner Escort and Custody Services staff have also tested positive.

Latest evidence on Covid-19 pandemic in prisons submitted to Justice Committee

As part of the Prison Reform Trust’s continuing efforts to scrutinise the government’s response to managing Covid-19 in our prisons, our director Peter Dawson has submitted his latest evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee today.

PRT continues to share evidence with the committee, drawn from our contact with people in prison and those working to support them during this exceptionally difficult time, in addition to our policy and advocacy work to improve public transparency in the government’s advice and decision making.

PRT comment: Further statement on our response to tackling Covid-19 in prisons

“I understand the disappointment at our decision not to take the government to court. Fundamentally, our case was that we believed the Lord Chancellor was ignoring advice that around 15,000 prisoners needed to be released in the interests of safety. What we have discovered through the action is that the situation is fluid and that the Government’s current position is informed by the public health advice that was published last Friday. Our lawyers have therefore advised that the most effective way forward at this time is to continue to apply pressure.

“We are not giving up. Managing the pandemic in prisons puts enormous strain on those who live and work in our prisons, and those who care for them. The need for there to be many fewer people in prison will not change and we will continue to make that case. The information we have gained this week because of the threat of legal action will be crucial in doing that. But we have to do it in the way we think is most likely to get the right result.”

Peter Dawson