Sex offender prisons during COVID-19 – effective early action against virus but severe restrictions remain

Read the report: prisons holding prisoners convicted of sexual offences

Three prisons holding 2,500 men convicted of sexual offences were found by HM Inspectorate of Prisons to have taken swift action, based on clear planning, to manage the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of the lockdown.

Information about COVID-19 and its impact on the daily regime was well communicated to the prisoners and inspectors who visited on 2 June found all three sites – HMP Littlehey, HMP Rye Hill and HMP Stafford – to have remained calm, well ordered and safe.

However, the visit took place ten weeks into the lockdown and inspectors also found that prisoners were frustrated with the continued extreme restrictions, which meant 23 hours a day locked in cells for most prisoners.

Peter Clarke, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, said that the age and disability profile at all three prisons heightened the risks associated with contracting the virus. Stafford and Rye Hill selected prisoners who were in a very high-risk category due to their age or serious underlying conditions – around 10% of their populations – and put systems in place to shield them from the virus.

Littlehey had been declared an official outbreak site in March. Three prisoners had died from COVID-19-related illnesses and there was a spike in the number of prisoners and staff testing positive for the virus. The prison took swift action to control the spread of the virus, Mr Clarke said, and “in a relatively short period of time the prison, in conjunction with health specialists, managed to bring infection rates down to a low and manageable level, which was commendable.” Mr Clarke added, however, that improvement in the severe regime at Littlehey was slow.

Prisoners at Stafford, and the vast majority at Rye Hill, could shower every day and most prisoners had daily access to telephones and exercise. At both sites, there was little difference between provision for shielding and non-shielding prisoners. In contrast, neither group at Littlehey was unlocked every day and the regime was particularly harsh for some shielding prisoners who could go up to 72 hours without access to showers, phone calls and exercise.

Cleaning across the sites was good and prisoners and inspectors noted positive relationships between staff and prisoners. However, while the prisons had retained roles in key areas of work such as kitchens and cleaning, most prisoners remained locked up during the day. They were provided with activity packs and workbooks to help pass the time. Rye Hill had been particularly innovative with an information channel to provide stimulation and entertainment and Stafford continued to offer PE in the open air at least once a week. However, classroom education had ceased and there had been a disappointing response to marking in-cell work books.

As in all other prisons, visits had ceased and prisoners had not seen their family and friends for nearly three months. Mr Clarke added that it was reassuring that appropriate public protection measures had been maintained, “given the serious nature of the offenders held at the three sites.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“Prisons of this type typically house a compliant population and this had remained the case throughout lockdown. However, it was clear that prisoners were becoming more frustrated by the restrictions in place and the impact they were having on their mental health, their families and their ability to progress. While this report highlights some successes in keeping the prison population safe during the pandemic, it also points to some of the negative and unintended consequences of continuous restriction and demonstrates the need to take steps to restore a safe, more reasonable and purposeful regime as soon as possible.”

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Notes to editors
1. A copy of the full report, published on 22 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 during the COVID-19 period is explained on our website (158.43 kB).

4. HMP Littlehey in Cambridgeshire, HMP Rye Hill in Warwickshire and HMP Stafford all hold adult prisoners convicted of sexual offences. At the time of our visits the combined number of prisoners held in the three prisons was over 2,500: Littlehey held 1,161, Rye Hill 657 and Stafford 711 prisoners.

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

6. These announced short scrutiny visits took place on 2 June 2020.

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