Inspectors concerned by impact of continued COVID-19 regime restrictions in women's prisons

Inspectors who visited two closed women’s prisons found there was an urgent need to ease severe regime restrictions which had been in place during the COVID-19 emergency, with clearer national guidance. Many prisoners reported deteriorating physical and mental health and some had not seen their children for more than three months.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) carried out short scrutiny visits (SSVs) at HMP Send and HMP and YOI Downview on 30 June 2020.

Managers were found to have had taken effective measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. At the time of the visit, there had been no evidence in either prison of the virus for several weeks.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said there had been some improvements to regime restrictions since earlier SSVs by HMI Prisons, to different women’s prisons, in May. “But they had not kept pace with the easing of restrictions in the community. It was a concern that national guidance for the easing of restrictions in prisons was still being finalised.”

Visits were still suspended at both prisons and many prisoners only received about an hour and a half out of cell each day. At Downview, prisoners could also attend four one-hour outdoor gym sessions a week, but prisoners in Send were only offered one or two such sessions. There were work opportunities at both sites but education classes were still suspended, though prisoners were given in-cell workbooks.

Isolation by those who were vulnerable to COVID-19, or had symptoms of the virus, was managed well on both sites. 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 both sites, governance of health care remained appropriate with partnership arrangements in place.

Mr Clarke said: “The suspension of visits has had a particularly acute impact in the women’s estate; many prisoners in Send and Downview had not seen their children for over three months. Video calling provision had only recently been rolled out in both sites, which women appreciated.”

Despite significant amounts of staff time spent on identifying prisoners for the two early release schemes in operation by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), only two prisoners had been released. Fewer prisoners were released without accommodation than in HMI Prisons’ previous SSVs to women’s prisons.

Mr Clarke added: “It was reassuring that recorded levels of self-harm had not increased since restrictions had been implemented. However, prisoners told us that ongoing restrictions were having an impact on their well-being, and there was further evidence to support this.” NHS England had commissioned a survey of health care users across both sites: 68% of respondents said their mental health had deteriorated since 23 March and 71% said their physical health had deteriorated.

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, evidence of the impact of the restricted regime on the well-being of prisoners was a concern. This, and the success in infection control, suggested the balance of risk was shifting. Both senior managers and prisoners saw the need to move to a more purposeful regime. However, recovery planning had been hampered by the lack of consistent, timely guidance from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). The need to move safely to a less restricted regime was becoming urgent.”

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Notes to editors

1. A copy of the full report, published on 17 July 2020, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website.

2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI 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 (291.56 kB) is explained on our website.

4. The report discusses findings from short scrutiny visits to HMP Send and HMP and YOI Downview. Both establishments are closed training prisons in the women’s estate. Send can hold up to 282 prisoners and Downview up to 303. This was our second round of visits to prisons in the women’s estate. We previously visited three women’s prisons on 18 May, at a time of maximum restrictions across the country.

5. The report identifies five areas of notable positive practice.

6. These announced short scrutiny visits took place on 30 June 2020.

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