Continued severe COVID-19 regime restrictions risk psychological decline in prisoners

Read the report: aggregate report of short scrutiny visits

Prisons and immigration removal centres responded decisively to keep prisoners, children and detainees safe from COVID-19, according to Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, in a report on findings from visits to 35 establishments in the early stages of the pandemic.

However, Mr Clarke warned that continued severe regime restrictions in prisons – at times amounting effectively to solitary confinement – have created “a real risk of psychological decline among prisoners, which needs to be addressed urgently.”

Publishing a review of short scrutiny visits (SSVs) undertaken between April and July, Mr Clarke said: “The restrictions imposed in March 2020 undoubtedly helped to prevent the spread of the virus.

“While many of these limitations were extreme, there was a high level of acceptance and cooperation among prisoners, supported by generally good communication about the reasons for such actions by most prison managers. For some weeks, there was a sense of prisoners, children and staff ‘being in this together’.”

However, as the Inspectorate’s SSV programme progressed inspectors identified “increasing levels of stress and frustration among many prisoners and evidence that prisoner well-being was being increasingly affected by the continuation of restrictions.

“Governors of individual establishments in the public sector were unable to make local adjustments to their regimes without permission from HM Prison and Probation (HMPPS) Gold Command, which delayed relaxation of restrictions which had already served their purpose in individual locations. This meant that 16 weeks after the restrictions were imposed, most of them were still in place.”

Children in public sector custody lost face-to-face education and for some exceptionally vulnerable individuals in women’s prisons, who usually benefitted from a range of specialist support services provided by external providers, the absence of these services was extremely damaging.

“For these prisoners, the long hours of lock up were compounded by the sudden withdrawal of services on which they depended, and self-harm among prisoners in prisons holding women has remained consistently high throughout the lockdown period.”

Mr Clarke noted the hard work over five months by prison staff to provide decent conditions for those in their care, “and for the most part they have been successful. Our SSV reports highlighted much notable positive practice.”

However, he added, “in some prisons, at certain times, conditions fell below an acceptable minimum, particularly in relation to time out of cell, time in the open air and showers. For example, some quarantined, isolated or shielded prisoners did not have access to time in the open air for a week or more and did not have a daily shower.”

If there were to be a resurgence of the virus, Mr Clarke said, “other means of controlling its spread that would not carry such a high risk of causing long-term harm to those in custody, and which would not risk them being held in conditions that meet widely agreed definitions of solitary confinement, should be explored.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“In prisons, there is now a real risk of psychological decline among prisoners, which needs to be addressed urgently, so that prisoners, children and detainees do not suffer long-term damage to their mental health and well-being, and prisons can fulfil their rehabilitative goals. At the time of writing, HMPPS are in the process of implementing their recovery plan for prisons, which involves individual establishments applying for permission to move to a new regime stage and then implementing (when authorised to do so) Exceptional Delivery Models (EDMs). This is all set out in the National Framework for Prison Regimes and Services. This document also makes clear that ‘progress will be slow and incremental, and restrictions may need to be re-imposed in the event of local outbreaks’. In light of the findings in this report, simply re-imposing the restrictions that were necessarily applied in the early stages of the outbreak would be too narrow an approach. We have seen many prison leaders who are convinced that they could have delivered more purposeful and more humane regimes without compromising safety, and who are frustrated by the restrictive approach they have been forced to take. Every establishment is different. Local initiative, innovation and flexibility which recognises those differences should surely be encouraged, and not stifled.”


Notes to editors
1. A copy of the full report, published on 19 August 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. Read about the development of short scrutiny visits (SSVs) in response to the COVID-19 crisis on our website.
4. Between 21 April – 7 July 2020 HM Inspectorate of Prisons visited 31 prisons and young offender institutions and four immigration removal centres. They are listed on pages 8 and 9 of the report.
5. Notable positive practice identified in the SSVs is available on our website.
6. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.