Men's local prisons during COVID-19 – prisoners' understanding of regime restrictions "severely tested"

Read the report: second short scrutiny visit to local prisons

Three men’s local prisons were found to have suppressed transmission of the COVID-19 virus effectively but prisoners were becoming increasingly frustrated after three months of severe regime restrictions.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said HMP Leeds, HMP Thameside in south east London and HMP Winchester faced stark pressures, compounded by increasing numbers of new arrivals and overcrowding.

Both Thameside and Leeds had experienced significant outbreaks, and both prisons had controlled them effectively. At Thameside, a member of staff died after contracting COVID-19. At Winchester, a prisoner died after contracting the virus in hospital. There had been no deaths at Leeds. As in other prisons visited by HM Inspectorate of Prisons during the COVID-19 emergency, regimes were extremely restricted

“Most prisoners at Leeds and many at Winchester shared Victorian cells, originally built to hold only one person. Poor enough in normal times, this was even more unacceptable when prisoners were locked up for almost all of the day in cramped conditions.

“Most prisoners were locked in their cells for more than 22.5 hours every day, and had been for some three months. At Leeds we observed some staff punishing poor behaviour by withdrawing an individual’s access to a shower for a day or more. This would always be unacceptable but was especially inappropriate because of the hot weather during the week of our visit [on 23 June].”

Living conditions were better at Thameside, which opened in 2012, though inspectors were surprised to see the lack of attention given to maintaining social distancing.

Mr Clarke said it was to the credit of staff and prisoners that all three prisons remained calm and well-ordered, despite the continuing and severe restrictions to the regime. Overall, communication with staff and prisoners about COVID-19 continued.

However, Mr Clarke added, “although prison restrictions were accepted as being necessary early in the pandemic and were, at that point, similar to those in the community, prisoners had become confused as to why community restrictions were easing but restrictions in prisons were not.

“This, along with the lack of purposeful activity, meant many prisoners were bored and frustrated. It was clear to our inspectors that more needed to be done in all the prisons to re-engage with prisoners and offer more activity to keep them occupied and well.”

The number of self-harm incidents at all three prisons was similar to before the restrictions were imposed. At Thameside, some prisoners at risk of self-harm told inspectors that they craved more human interaction. Health care provision was good at each site.

The loss of social visits continued to affect prisoners and their families enormously and the introduction of video calling for virtual visits had been far too slow to materialise and was not yet operational in any of these prisons (though Leeds was expecting to launch it in early July). Only one prisoner across the three sites had been released early, despite many being eligible for consideration.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“In the three prisons, we were struck by the commitment to maintaining the regime, albeit a very restricted one. However, we were concerned that there was little evidence of initiatives to relax the very restrictive regimes, and it was clear that prisoners were becoming increasingly frustrated and struggled to understand the disparity between what they were experiencing and what was happening in the community. There was an obvious need to engage prisoners once again in some meaningful activity out of their cells. So far there has been a degree of understanding and goodwill on the part of most prisoners, but there is growing evidence that this is now being severely tested.”

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Notes to editors
1. A copy of the full report, published on 10 July 2020, can be found on our 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. Read more about our methodology for short scrutiny visits (SVVs) to men’s prisons during the COVID-19 period (158 kB).

4. This is our second report on short scrutiny visits to local prisons. Our first report covered visits to HMP Altcourse, HMP Elmley and HMP Wandsworth that were undertaken two months ago, in April 2020, just a month after the restricted regime came into force across prisons in England and Wales. This time we visited HMP Leeds, HMP Thameside and HMP Winchester on 23 June 2020.

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

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