COVID restrictions affect vulnerable women prisoners and mothers had not seen children for two months

Read the report: short scrutiny visit to prisons holding women

Three women’s prisons visited by the Inspectorate during the COVID-19 emergency were found to have introduced significantly restricted daily regimes to tackle the spread of the virus.

While this approach was well communicated by staff who maintained positive relationships with prisoners, inspectors were troubled by the negative impact of the restrictions on some women at HMP & YOI Bronzefield, HMP & YOI Eastwood Park and HMP & YOI Foston Hall.

As at all prisons, face-to-face visits had stopped. At the three women’s prisons, video-based visits had yet to come into operation and some women had not seen their children for two months. Inspectors were also concerned about the suspension of specialist support for some of the most vulnerable women and the fact that many were released without accommodation.

Inspectors carried out short scrutiny visits on 19 May. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “All three establishments had implemented regime restrictions to ensure prisoners could only come out of their cells in smaller groups, generally on one landing. In addition, those who were new to custody, were vulnerable to COVID-19 or had symptoms of the virus were isolated from the rest of the population.”

Isolation was generally managed well at Bronzefield and Foston Hall. However, at Eastwood Park managers needed to address weaknesses in this area. Social distancing was understood by both staff and prisoners and, while difficult due to some narrow corridors and small offices, was generally adhered to at Eastwood Park and Foston Hall. However, social distancing was not routinely observed at Bronzefield.

The regime for women was most limited at Foston Hall, where most only received 30 minutes of exercise each day. Women at Bronzefield received an hour, as did the majority of prisoners at Eastwood Park. Face-to-face education had been largely suspended and inspectors were concerned by the absence of any organised PE provision.

Mr Clarke said: “Our findings highlight the particular impact many of the restrictions implemented to control the spread of the virus has had on this population. We found that self-harm had increased from the high levels seen prior to the restrictions being implemented.”

Managers at all three sites had put in place measures to support prisoners at risk of self-harm and it was positive to see enhanced welfare checks and access to peer support at Bronzefield and Eastwood Park. Despite these efforts, Mr Clarke added, “we were concerned about the impact of the very sudden withdrawal of a range of interventions from a small number of prisoners with very high levels of need.” The report noted: “Despite the work of staff, the very restricted regime meant prisoners at risk of self-harm felt isolated from others and craved more human contact.”

The suspension of visits had had a particularly acute impact. Mr Clarke said: “We spoke to women who had not seen their children for two months and were understandably frustrated by the delays in supplying any video calling provision.

“HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) managers had procured a service that was about to be trialled at Bronzefield and Eastwood Park. However, at the time of our visits there were no timeframes for a rollout across the estate. More positively, prisoners appreciated the additional phone credit at all three sites.”

The prisons had continued to receive significant numbers of new prisoners and early release schemes in operation had been largely ineffective in reducing the population. It was positive that all three sites had maintained release planning processes, but Mr Clarke added: “This hard work was undermined by the lack of accommodation for many on release. Since the start of the restrictions, 40% of prisoners released from Bronzefield and Eastwood Park and 20% of those release from Foston Hall had no accommodation on the day of their release.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“This report highlights positive practice in several areas and it is a credit to staff that most prisoners we spoke to were positive about staff-prisoner relationships, despite the significant restrictions in place. However, the particularly high level of need within the women’s estate makes it all the more important to prioritise work to improve the support offered to prisoners with multiple and complex needs, implement an effective alternative to visits and for HMPPS to work with other government departments to improve provision of accommodation on release.”

– End –

Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the full report, published on 5 June 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. Our methodology for short scrutiny visits to women’s prisons during the COVID-19 emergency is explained here.
  4. This report discusses findings from short scrutiny visits to HMP & YOI Bronzefield, HMP & YOI Eastwood Park and HMP & YOI Foston Hall. All three establishments are part of the women’s estate and hold remand and convicted adult prisoners. Bronzefield is larger than the other two sites and can hold up to around 550 prisoners; Eastwood Park has a capacity of 400 and Foston Hall can hold around 300 prisoners.
  5. The report identifies seven areas of notable positive practice.
  6. These announced short scrutiny visits took place on 19 May 2020.
  7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.