Men's training prisons during COVID-19 – virus spread limited but worrying impact of restricted regimes

Read the report: Category C training prisons short scrutiny visit

Three men’s training prisons were found to have taken swift action to successfully limit the spread of COVID-19 but inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons also reported that prisoners were locked in their cells for between 22 and 23 hours a day.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said there were variations in the implementation of social distancing when prisoners were allowed out – both within and between the three prisons – which must be addressed so restricted regimes can be safely eased.

Inspectors carried out one-day short scrutiny visits (SSVs) on 5 May to HMP Coldingley, HMP Ranby and HMP/YOI Portland. Ranby holds about 1,000 men and is around twice the size of the other two prisons. SSVs were developed to enable HM Inspectorate of Prisons to meet its duty to report on treatment and conditions experienced by prisoners.

Mr Clarke said the report on the visits, published today, highlighted the challenges of running the prisons safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inspectors found effective communication with prisoners and respectful staff-prisoner interaction. “Managers at all sites had initiated regime restrictions to ensure prisoners could come out of their cells in smaller groups, as well as implementing social distancing measures within the prisoner populations and staff groups. As at all establishments, the impact of these measures had been a reduction in the amount of time prisoners spent out of their cells.”

Limited time out of cell was a particular problem at Coldingley, in Surrey, where around two-thirds of the population had no toilet or sink in their cell. The lengthy periods for which prisoners were locked up had placed additional pressure on the “on request” sanitation system usually only used during the night. The result was that prisoners, faced with long waits to use the communal facilities, resorted to using buckets in their cells. (Night sanitation is an electronic system that allows prisoners out of their cells one at a time to use communal facilities overnight. Prisoners who need to use the toilet join an electronic queue to be unlocked.)

Mr Clarke added that while this situation had improved, with prisoners now let out by staff during the day, prisoners still faced waits of up to two hours during the night. Communal toilets and showers at Coldingley were also not cleaned often or thoroughly enough. The situation at the prison was likely to improve with the imminent addition of 48 temporary single cells “but the difficulties faced by prisoners living in cells without sanitation raised the question of whether these cells should be currently occupied. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that prisoners had to eat their meals in these same cells, and that by the time of this visit hand sanitiser had not been provided.”

Social distancing was very well marked out and generally adhered to at Coldingley but some prisoners chose not to follow advice at the other prisons. Social distancing needed to be implemented far more rigorously in some work areas at Portland and Ranby, Mr Clarke said.

At Coldingley and Ranby most prisoners spent around an hour out of their cells each day. The regime at Portland was better: prisoners there had 75 minutes out of their cell and gym staff ran regular exercise classes for each wing. This was one of six notable positive practice points highlighted in the report.

While violence and self-harm had reduced at Ranby, this was not the case at the other two establishments, where levels in April were similar to or above those recorded immediately before the restrictions were imposed.

Inspectors found good healthcare at the three prisons but noted that the suspension of visits had impacted negatively on many prisoners. Mr Clarke said: “Nationally, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) managers had been slow to implement video-calling and at the time of our visit there was no such provision at any of the sites.”

Managers at all three prisons were also “rightly frustrated” that, despite significant effort, only a very small number of prisoners had been released under the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“While noting the success of action taken to prevent the spread of the virus, this report also highlights significant issues: the very poor conditions for many prisoners at Coldingley; the, as yet, negligible impact of the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme; and disparities in social distancing within and between establishments. It will not be possible to run a safe and decent regime without social distancing for some time and it should therefore be a priority for managers at all levels to ensure social distancing becomes established and embedded among both staff and prisoners.”

– End –

Notes to editors

1. A copy of the full report, published on 22 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 HM Inspectorate of Prisons to tell the story of life in prison during the current crisis and comment on the proportionality of the action being taken. Each report also includes a list of notable positive practice examples.

8. These announced short scrutiny visits to three men’s training prisons – Coldingley, Portland and Ranby – took place on 5 May 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.