Chief Inspector’s blog: a year like no other

Photo of Charlie Taylor

I took up my post as Chief Inspector of Prisons in November and it is frustrating that because of the pandemic, I still have not been able to meet many of the team face-to-face. Despite this, I have been enormously impressed by the dedication of the staff at HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the vast reserves of knowledge and expertise that sit within the organisation. I have learnt a huge amount, just by listening to the way the team members talk about inspecting prisons and watching them in action on the ground.

In April last year, not long after the first lockdown began, Peter Clarke, my predecessor, decided that, despite the restrictions, it was essential that there continued to be some independent scrutiny of prisons. The Inspectorate began by conducting thematic, short scrutiny visits (SSVs) that looked at provision in different types of custody such as women’s prisons, young offender institutions, the high secure estate and immigration removal centres. These led to the production of short, high-level reports that commented on how prisons were coping during the early stages of the pandemic.

By August, SSVs were replaced by scrutiny visits (SVs) which involved a team spending two days in an establishment and producing a short inspection report. Though we did not feel we would be able to gather enough evidence to grade against our healthy prison tests, these reports identified good practice at places like Feltham and Bristol and serious concerns at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre and Erlestoke.

As the most serious wave of the pandemic struck at the end of December, we had to postpone some SVs because of the levels of outbreak in individual prisons and we decided to reduce temporarily the amount of time and number of people involved in each visit. Now that infection rates have fallen, we have resumed two-day visits and we are hoping to return to full, scored inspections in early summer.

This year we have also produced three thematic reports, focusing on the experience of minority ethnic prisoners in rehabilitation and release planning, the outcomes for young adults in the prison system and prisoners’ experiences of the pandemic. This most recent thematic involved extensive interviews with more than 70 prisoners in six prisons, including women’s and children’s establishments.

They told us that, though they had supported the lockdown at the beginning and had appreciated the protections put in place by prisons, they were often now feeling an overwhelming sense of helplessness and hopelessness. They felt they were unable to make progress with their sentences, were getting very limited access to education, training and rehabilitation support, and were missing visits from their families and friends. As I said in the report’s introduction:

The cumulative effect of such prolonged and severe restrictions on prisoners’ mental health and well-being is profound… Action is needed to maintain the few positives derived from the pandemic, such as video calling, and to make sure that prisons are prepared to restore activity as soon as it is safe. Locking prisoners up in prolonged isolation has never been a feature of a healthy prison.

While considering the risks posed by the virus, HM Inspectorate of Prisons will focus much of its attention in the coming months on the opening up of prison regimes.

This has been an enormously difficult year for many of us, but I want to finish by paying tribute to officers, governors and other staff who have continued to work, in what have often been very difficult circumstances, with the risk of the virus always present. While frontline services in the community have rightly been praised for their ongoing response to the pandemic, the often hidden work of those behind prison walls must not be forgotten.

Charlie Taylor