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Category: Prisoner Policy Network

Paula Harriott presented with prestigious Perrie award

Healthy relationships between staff and prisoners key to delivering government ambitions for prisons

Consultation launched on ethnicity and prisoners’ experience

Prisons need to become places of purpose, not just punishment

PPN coordinator gives evidence to parliament on prison education

Prisoners’ mental health suffering under conditions of “prolonged solitary confinement”

People 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 which examines the issue of prisoners’ health during the pandemic.

Based on evidence received from prisoners and their families from June to the present day, the briefing highlights the consequences for prisoners of being locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day for the past 10 months under conditions which amount to “prolonged solitary confinement”.

It also highlights measures taken by prisons which had made the situation more bearable. These include kindness and empathy from staff, access to exercise and other activities, mental health support, good communications and effective precautions against the disease.

The briefing is published on the same day as the release of an HM Inspectorate of Prisons thematic review on the impact of the pandemic on prisoners, which reveals the heavy toll restrictions have taken on prisoners’ wellbeing and rehabilitation.

CAPPTIVE is a collaborative project by the Prison Reform Trust and our Prisoner Policy Network, which aims to describe life in prison under the pandemic.

The first CAPPTIVE briefing covered families and communication and the second, regimes, reactions and progression. This, the third briefing, covers precautions against transmission, routine health care, disabilities, prisoners’ well-being, mental health, self-harm, and what helped. CAPPTIVE received 180 responses from prisoners related to health, drawn from 79 identified prisons and six unspecified prisons.

In March 2020, HM Prison and Probation Service introduced measures to protect prisoners and staff in light of Covid-19. This included the introduction of a quarantine regime, ceasing all inter-prison transfers, separating new arrivals, isolating symptomatic prisoners, and shielding vulnerable prisoners.

Under the quarantine regime, time out of cell was severely restricted, leaving the vast majority of the prison population locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. The United Nations defines solitary confinement as being held in a cell for 22 hours or more per day. It states that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman, or degrading. Prolonged is anything over 15 days.

The vast majority of CAPPTIVE respondents who wrote about the quarantine regime described negative effects for their well-being. Out of 180 prisoner responses on the theme of health, only three (less than 2%) mentioned any personal benefit from the regime of 23 hours isolated in their cell.

People experienced sensory deprivation due to 23-hour confinement in a cell, and many respondents reported feeling fatalistic. CAPPTIVE evidence showed that the regime undermined a person’s sense of identity; took away self-worth; and led to anxieties about the effects of separation on children.

One prisoner said:

“Mental health—the impacts on residents like myself can be profound, unexpected and confusing to all. This is a particular concern for me as the invisible harm is harder to address than the visible.”

Another said:

“Individuals suffering from mental health conditions such as claustrophobia, PTSD, anxiety and depression…would be up all night doing overtime thinking or panicking or stressing and then be faced with that hectic ‘first thing in the morning’ regime. I observed a few not clean their cells or have showers for weeks due to this.”

Prison rehabilitation promotes positive change through education, skills training, offending behaviour programmes, faith activities, and volunteering roles. Activities help to motivate people to get through their sentence and give that time a purpose. The quarantine regime curtailed most of these opportunities and led many to question whether their lives had a purpose.

One prisoner said:

“Mental health is a massive issue here in prisons and…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 and we are about to hit a brick wall.”

The lack of activities and the loss of family contact undermined people’s well-being and contributed to depression. A few responses to CAPPTIVE provided strong evidence that staff were sometimes unaware of the damage that the quarantine regime was doing to mental health.

Prisoners writing to CAPPTIVE stressed the importance of kindness and empathy to help them cope. The quality of staff engagement with prisoners is vital to prisoners’ well-being – taking an interest in the needs of each person as an individual, giving people time to talk through the effects of the quarantine regime, and helping people fill their time meaningfully.

One prisoner said:

“Since the lockdown it has been an abundance of solitary confinement, but a lot of the staff members have managed to show empathy towards myself and other inmates’ situations and concerns to the best of their ability. Taking the time to talk to inmates after stressful phone calls, encouraging distraction techniques, as well as encouraging keeping a high hygiene standard.”

The findings of the briefing suggest that the prison service is facing fundamental questions about how to manage the risks posed by Covid-19 and “build back better”. The service understands that achieving a “healthy” prison means much more than freedom from disease. The messages contained in this report from people who live in prison is that they should be part of the blueprint for a healthier future.

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

“Just as it has in the community, the situation in our overcrowded prison system has got worse since the evidence in this report was gathered. The suffering and long-term harm it describes are deeper than ever. But the report also shows the building blocks for a better future. Empathy and kindness from many staff have made a real difference, and it will be full active days spent out of the confines of a nine foot by six foot cell that define recovery in the longer term.”

Click here to download a copy of the briefing

No justice without us: respecting lived experience of the criminal justice system

Blog: Prison — a place for co-production

New podcast shines a light on the closed world of prisons

We’re pleased to launch our new series of podcasts with Straightline and National Prison Radio.

Presented by Phil Maguire OBE, Chief Executive of the Prison Radio Association, and Head of Prisoner Engagement at Prison Reform Trust Paula Harriott, each episode of The Secret Life of Prisons takes on a theme related to the prison experience, and features a range of guests with personal experience and insight on each topic.

Through the series listeners will be hear personal testimony from people who have been there, as you are guided out from court and arrival to prison, all the way through to release.

In our first episode, Phil and Paula hear from poet and performer, Brenda Birungi (aka Lady Unchained), music entrepreneur Curtis Blanc and former MP and Conservative cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, about their respective arrivals into prison.

Other guests in the series include:

  • Raphael Rowe—who was wrongly-imprisoned and is a journalist, reporter and presenter
  • David Breakspear—who is an author and blogger with experience of the justice system
  • Josie Bevan—who shares her experience of life with a husband in prison through her blog Prison Bag
  • Peter Yarwood—who has spent 20 years in and out of prison and is now Chief Executive of Red Rose Recovery
  • Carl Cattermole—who is a former prisoner and an award-winning dramatist and author

You can listen to the first episode below. Look out for future episodes by following #TheSecretLifeOfPrisons on social media.


Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

Blog: Telling it like it is

Prisoner Policy Network launches first report with evidence from those with lived experience of prison

Last year Inside Time met with the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) as we embarked on a new project. The launch of the Prisoner Policy Network (PPN) at HMP Grendon in July 2018 was a commitment to give prisoners a stronger voice in influencing the policies that affect them, and to share their expertise and experience with policymakers.

We spent three months hearing from over 1,250 people with experience of prison. We visited prisons, received evidence from prison councils and community groups, letters, emails, and phone calls.

In January we published the PPN’s first report: ‘What incentives work in prison?’ The topic was chosen to coincide with a Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, and to demonstrate the need for prisoner insight in effective policymaking.

We did not expect nor did we receive a simple collective message, but a number of very clear common themes emerged which should underpin any new incentives scheme.


Getting the basics right

Many people in prison agree with the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart—there is an urgent need to deliver the basics in our prisons. Talking about incentives made little sense when your quality of life was dominated by the struggle to get clean clothes or access to fresh air.

One respondent quoted in the report said: “How can we talk about incentives when we can’t get the basics right, like safety, toilet rolls and clean socks.”


Restoring trust in the incentives scheme

Most prisoners viewed the IEP scheme as a system of punishments delivered through threats; with little distinction between Basic, Standard or Enhanced. The system is not effectively incentivising good behaviour, engagement or rehabilitation; at least not for most people.

A lack of transparency in how decisions are made, little scrutiny in individual decisions, a bias towards negative entries on records and no right of appeal all instil a sense of injustice and mistrust. As one person put it: “It’s all stick and no carrot”


Meaningful incentives

Many people reported that incentives need to be meaningful to prisoners for any scheme to secure their buy-in. The pressure of trying to live on wages between £2.50 and £17 a week whilst having to buy phone credit to stay in touch with families, to buy toiletries and supplement diets with additional food was a frequent concern.

You told us that you were frustrated by a lack of hope, a lack of purposeful work, and a lack of contact with loved ones. You suggested more use of release on temporary licence, higher pay rates, better quality visits and, crucially, a chance to reduce time in custody.


Supportive prisoner and staff relationships

The quality of relationships between staff and prisoners is crucial to whether any incentives scheme would work or fail. Mutual respect, positive encouragement and collaboration were seen as key principles to a successful scheme.

One prisoner said: “The day I trust this system is the day an officer says he/she is going to sort out my issue and comes back to me with the answer; it’s a long story of lost applications, lost requests and general ‘don’t care’ attitude.”


Giving prisoners the opportunities to rebuild trust

People said they were frustrated that the important roles they play in supporting prison staff to keep other prisoners safe and motivated, such as peer workers, reading mentors and violence reduction reps, were not sufficiently acknowledged in the existing systems.

One prisoner said: “When you come to prison you are immediately in a position where you have broken trust in some way. Rebuilding that, and demonstrating a reduced risk in the process, is extremely difficult. I believe if trust was weaved into the IEP scheme in some way, prisoners would in general respond positively.”


So what now?

The report was launched at HMP Coldingley at the end of January, and brought together current and former prisoners, staff, HM Prison Service policymakers, inspectors, peer-led organisations, academics and charities.

What was clear from the response of staff and officials was that your insight and experience is desperately needed. You see and experience the effects of distant policy decisions made in Westminster. You see the impact that a change to the IEP policy makes.

Making the shift so that policy is something that is created with prisoners rather than to them will take time, but the event marked an important start in that process. We won’t achieve everything we want in the next six months, but we can use our position to bring ministers and officials with us.

The report shows that many of you want to do the right thing. You want to use your skills to help others. You want to show staff that you can be trusted again. But you also feel that the current incentives scheme isn’t supporting you to do this.


The next question

The event also saw the launch of the next question on which we’d like your views.

‘What do you need in order to make best use of your time in prison?’

The consultation will run until the end of April, and you can find out how you or your prison can contribute at the end of this article.

Over the next 2–3 months the PPN will arrange another round of prison visits including, hopefully, all of those prisons involved in the first consultation. This will allow us to feedback our results from our first report and gather responses to the next question.

If you would like us to hold a workshop at your prison, or invite us to a prisoner council, then please contact the PPN, and we’ll do everything we can to try and consult in your prison.

We will also be asking all of our partner organisations to help facilitate another round of discussion groups in prisons and in the community.

It is clear from the work we have done so far that by collaborating we will be able to achieve goals that are beyond our reach when working alone. A powerful message; and a reminder of the value that our collective experience can bring in delivering meaningful change in our prisons.

If you want to contribute to our next question ‘What do you need in order to make best use of your time in prison?’ then please write to the Prisoner Policy Network with your thoughts and ideas at: Prison Reform Trust, FREEPOST ND6125, London EC1B 1PN, or call us on 020 7251 5070 (the number should be already cleared on your pin).

This article first appeared in Inside Time’s March 2019 edition

Picture credit: Erika Flowers