Men's open prisons during COVID-19 – frustration at continued suspension of release to work

Read the report: open prisons

Three men’s open prisons were found by HM Inspectorate of Prisons to have taken successful action to protect prisoners from COVID-19 but the continued suspension of release to work in the community was having a negative impact.

Inspectors visited HMP/YOI Thorn Cross, HMP Ford and HMP Sudbury, three prisons holding category D prisoners, on 9 June 2020.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Many of these prisoners will have worked their way down the prison security categories and will be coming to the end of their sentence.

“Release on temporary licence (ROTL) is a key focus of open prisons and is of great importance to effective resettlement back into the community […] ROTL aims to enable prisoners to undertake work, education or training in the community, maintain contact with their family or significant people in their lives and access community services and support.”

However, ROTL opportunities were suspended at the three prisons on 23 March 2020, except for prisoners with jobs in the community that were designated as key worker roles.

Inspectors noted that the suspension of ROTL was necessary at the start of the restricted regime to minimise the spread of COVID-19. However, Mr Clarke said, “11 weeks later we found a sense among prisoners that the establishments had lost their purpose.

“Many prisoners had worked for years to gain the opportunity to move to open conditions, and evidence a reduction in their risk of reoffending and build or re-build ties with family and the community; others had been working out in the community for some time and had begun to build a new life even before release.

“Prisoners felt the loss of opportunity keenly and levels of frustration were high. Most understood the need for the restrictions, but were anxious to know when they would be relaxed in line with the lifting of some restrictions in the community.”

Inspectors also found variations in the way the prisons identified essential workers between the sites. At Ford and Sudbury, a limited number of prisoners had been accepted as essential workers and continued to attend work in the community, but at Thorn Cross no prisoners had been deemed essential workers.

There was also a striking variation between the prisons in measures in place to limit the risk of infection. At Thorn Cross the external doors to the house units were locked for much of the day with prisoners only allowed outside at their designated exercise times, “which was at odds with the ethos of an open prison and not defensible.” At Ford and Sudbury, prisoners continued to enjoy the freedom of an open prison, as long as they adhered to social distancing rules.

Prisoners who were most vulnerable to self-harm, isolation or well-being issues were supported well. Living conditions were reasonable but almost all education had stopped and most workshops were closed, which left prisoners with little to do during the day. Social visits and ROTL aimed at promoting family ties had also been suspended, which deeply affected prisoners.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“This report notes the successful action taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It also highlights inconsistencies between prisons and the significant impact that the lack of ROTL is having on prisoners held in open prisons.”

– End –

Notes to editors

1. A copy of the full report, published on 29 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 (SVVs) to men’s prisons (158 kB) during the COVID-19 period is explained on our website.

4. HMP/YOI Thorn Cross in Cheshire, HMP Ford in West Sussex and HMP Sudbury in Derbyshire are three open prisons holding category D prisoners.

5. The report identifies six examples of notable positive practice.

6. These announced short scrutiny visits took place on 9 June 2020.

7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.