Local men's prisons during COVID-19 – communications key to prisoner acceptance of severe restrictions

Read the report: short scrutiny visit to local prisons

Three large and busy men’s local prisons visited by inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons during the COVID-19 crisis were found to be stable, with prisoners mostly supportive of the “extreme” regime restrictions aimed at keeping them safe.

Publishing a report on the visits, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said clear communications played an important part in promoting prisoner acceptance of restrictions – which often meant often only 30 minutes per day out of cell at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool, HMP Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey and HMP Wandsworth in south London.

However, Mr Clarke also struck a note of caution, observing that the prisons faced potentially greater challenges in coming months as they tried to ease restrictions and reintroduce more purposeful regimes.

Inspectors carried out three one-day short scrutiny visits (SSVs) to the three prisons on 28 April. SSVs were developed to enable HM Inspectorate of Prisons to meet its duty to report on treatment and conditions whilst adhering to health guidance and to avoid the demands of normal full inspections.

Mr Clarke said: “These large and busy prisons present considerable management challenges even in less exceptional times, including overcrowding and, in the case of Wandsworth, 19th-century accommodation.

“It was a credit to the approach of staff and skilled crisis management by senior managers that all the prisons were stable and prisoners we spoke to were largely supportive of the action that had been taken. Clear and imaginative communication from senior managers to prisoners and staff underpinned these findings.”

The report noted: “The high level of communications and consultation we saw helped to increase the legitimacy of the restrictions among prisoners.” Prisons made good use of prison radio and television channels and Elmley communicated effectively with foreign national prisoners. Strong communications are among ten examples of notable good practice identified in the report.

This level of communication was critical, Mr Clarke added, given the extreme restrictions that prisoners were being asked to endure.
“The vast majority were locked up for nearly the whole day with usually no more than half an hour out of their cells. We found some examples of even greater restrictions. In one prison, a small number of symptomatic prisoners had been isolated in their cells without any opportunity to come out for a shower or exercise for up to 14 days.”

More positively, processes for supporting prisoners at risk of self-harm remained in place at all establishments and recorded levels of self-harm had either remained the same or slightly reduced at all prisons.

Most isolating prisoners felt supported by staff. Management of health care and joint working to manage local outbreaks were effective across all three sites and mental health support was being sustained across each prison.

Prisoners were given well-designed activity packs to occupy themselves while in their cells and each prison had also maintained employment for a small number of men, with some workshops running in each prison with reduced workforces to enable adequate social distancing.

Inspectors found that efforts had been made everywhere to promote a safer environment through rigorous cleaning and social distancing, though narrow landings and cramped accommodation made social distancing extremely difficult in some parts of each prison. Mr Clarke added: “We also saw too many staff were unnecessarily crowding into small offices in some prisons. It was obvious that important messages were not always fully understood or practised.”

The loss of visits had had a considerable impact on all prisoners and while in-cell telephones were a great help, not enough had yet been done to expand the use of video-calling to better compensate for the loss of face-to-face contact. Very few prisoners had been released through the early release scheme. While the prisons’ populations had all declined slightly, each had received large numbers of recalled prisoners.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“We were impressed by the way that prison managers, staff and prisoners had adapted to the challenges presented by the current crisis. We were also struck by the support that staff had so far received from prisoners who understood the reasons for the extreme restrictions to which they were subject. Prison managers were starting to turn their minds towards the potentially even greater challenges that lay ahead, of recovery and providing more purposeful and rehabilitative regimes.”

– END-

Notes to editors
1. A copy of the full report, published on 18 May 2020, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website.

2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.

3. HM Inspectorate of Prisons normally reports against a wide range of detailed standards, which are listed in our Expectations. Inspection teams of up to 12 people are usually in establishments across two weeks, speaking to prisoners and staff, observing prison life and examining a large amount of documentation and evidence. The COVID-19 pandemic has required a substantial revision of such norms, at least in the short term.

4. A detailed briefing document on our new methodology is available on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website. The purpose of our current approach is to:

  • fulfil HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ statutory duty to report on treatment and conditions effectively, without adding unreasonable burdens to a system currently dealing with unprecedented challenges
  • promote transparency about the response to COVID-19 in places of detention and ensure that lessons can be learned quickly
  • use an adapted methodology which provides effective independent scrutiny while adhering at all times to the ‘do no harm’ principle. This means that HM Inspectorate of Prisons will not put detainees, prison staff or its own staff at unreasonable risk and will work in line with national public health guidance.

5. HM Inspectorate of Prisons recognises that at times of crisis and operational pressure, the risks of both deliberate and unintentional mistreatment increase, and external perspective and oversight of closed institutions become even more important than usual. By identifying concerns, we also aim to promote more effective and safer practices in prisons, thereby supporting public health. Our methodology will be reviewed and updated in line with changing circumstances.

6. Key characteristics of short scrutiny visits are that only two to three inspectors will attend establishments, including a health inspector. Each visit will take place over the course of a single day, and will focus on a small number of issues which are essential to the care and basic rights of those detained. These critical areas include: care for the most vulnerable prisoners and the need for meaningful human contact; support for those at risk of self-harm and suicide; hygiene; legal rights; health care; access to fresh air; contact with families, friends and the outside world; and support and risk management for those being released.

7. Short scrutiny visits do not allow the exhaustive triangulation of evidence that characterises inspections. However, they do enable us to tell the story of life in prison during the current crisis and comment on the proportionality of the action being taken.

8. These short scrutiny visits to three men’s local prisons – Altcourse, Elmley and Wandsworth – took place on 28 April 2020.

9. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at john.steele@justice.gov.uk, if you would like more information. Please contact the Ministry of Justice news desk – 0203 334 0356 – for their comment.