Chief Inspector’s blog: open prisons in lockdown

In the last six weeks, HMI Prisons has particularly focused on open prisons, conducting scrutiny visits at Ford, Thorn Cross, East Sutton Park and North Sea Camp. Open prisons have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 restrictions because they have largely been unable to fulfil their main function – preparing prisoners for release. In normal times a big proportion of the population would be off-site, working and developing the skills that will help them to get into employment when they leave prison – one of the most important factors in preventing people from reoffending.

With restrictions in place, much of this work has been suspended. Though there are employment opportunities within the prisons, such as the Timpson workshop at Thorn Cross or picking and packing for DHL at Leyhill, these cannot replace the importance of working out in the community.

The population at open prisons is very varied, from those coming to the end of very long or life sentences, to others who have been assessed as low risk and who have been moved quickly from the closed estate to serve short sentences. In Leyhill, a substantial proportion of the population are also convicted sex offenders, a group that is particularly hard to find outside work for while at an open prison.

This variety of prisoners makes these prisons complicated places to run, with public protection arrangements needing to be set up for a small number of high-risk prisoners. This said, open prisons are predominately safe places where prisoners, with the threat of return to closed conditions, usually behave well. It has been interesting to see the difference in staff-prisoner relationships in our visits, which in some cases are really good. In others, there is not the same level of trust.

Prisoners at the end of life sentences or those serving other indeterminate sentences benefit, like many prisoners, from releases on temporary license (ROTLs) as a way to re-integrate into the community. For many, COVID-19 has led to these being delayed, meaning that some prisoners have been unable to make parole through no fault of their own. Others have had to remain in prison beyond their release date because suitable accommodation cannot be found. ROTL is also sometimes used to let prisoners go out into the community to see relatives or to have a weekend at home with partners and children, but again, up until very recently, restrictions have made these a rarity.

It is easy to assume that the excitement of release will override any anxiety about leaving custody, but prisoners in open prisons have consistently told me how nervous they are about the future. They have become so used to the predicable routines of prison life that they have lost everyday skills, such as negotiating transport or using a smartphone. They are often uncertain about where they will live, how relationships will have changed with their children and families, and what they will do for work. They also worry that they will be tempted to go back into offending.

In inspecting open prisons, I have met some of the most disgruntled prisoners I have come across during the pandemic because, though they have more freedom than those who are locked behind a wall, their expectations are so much higher. One prisoner I met said that he had been desperate to get to his open prison, but now felt more stuck than he did when he was in a category C establishment. He felt it was like having the sun just over the horizon but it never quite rising.

This week, we announced our return to full inspections. This means we will conduct a full two-week inspection, with a team of researchers conducting a prisoner survey and a team of inspectors spending a second week in the prison, talking to prisoners and staff and inspecting the regime. With more prisons moving into stage three of HM Prison and Probation Service’s recovery framework, things are beginning to get better across the prison estate, but it may be some time before things will be able to operate as they should.

Charlie Taylor