HMP Preston – more ambition needed to increase pace of recovery from severe COVID-19 restrictions

Read the report: HMP Preston scrutiny visit

HMP Preston, a local men’s prison in Lancashire, was found by inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) to be severely overcrowded, with most prisoners locked in cells for most of the day and none having been released early in the COVID-19 period.

Inspectors visited the prison in August 2020, using the scrutiny visit methodology which HMI Prisons has developed to assess how prisons are recovering from the severe restrictions of the early COVID-19 pandemic.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “While the population was lower than at our previous inspection in 2017, the prison was still severely overcrowded. As we have found elsewhere, the early release schemes brought in to relieve pressure on places during the pandemic had been ineffective, with no prisoners released following assessment.”

Some accommodation in the 18th-century prison was deteriorating or, as in the case of the very cramped reception area, barely fit for purpose. In such areas, Mr Clarke said, “social distancing was all but impossible, and it was difficult in much of the rest of the prison […] We saw few attempts by staff and prisoners to socially distance even where it was achievable.”

Inspectors found that most prisoners had understood the reasons for the restrictions imposed in March 2020, but many were now confused and concerned about the possible next steps.

Nearly all prisoners received the restricted regime reliably, including daily access to telephones and showers, and exercise in the open air six days a week. However, most were still locked up for 22.5 hours a day, usually in shared cells that were not designed to hold more than one prisoner.

Prisoners isolating to protect others from the virus were allowed out of their cells for only 15 minutes a week to shower. Mr Clarke added: “This was unacceptable and, given that there was only one such prisoner during our visit, wholly avoidable.” The single isolating prisoner told inspectors he had been hot and short of breath in the previous few days when outside temperatures were high: “If they could just let me have 10 minutes every day for a shower and to let some air in, that would make a big difference.”

Following an initial reduction, the incidence of violence was now starting to increase. Use of force by staff had increased in May and June 2020 to levels above those before the regime had been restricted, though it had started to reduce again.

Self-harm was at a similar level to that before the restricted regime was imposed. Case management for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm was generally reasonable. Two-thirds of Preston prisoners said they had mental health problems and 11 were waiting to be transferred to a secure hospital. Mr Clarke added: “Some prisoners we interviewed described a decline in their mental well-being during the restricted regime.”

Inspectors observed generally good staff-prisoner relationships and the prison was clean and additional cleaning was being carried out daily. Social visits had been reintroduced but were suspended shortly after as a result of local area restrictions.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“Managers and staff at Preston had shown considerable resilience in managing the changing demands of the COVID-19 period. Prisoners had shown similar fortitude, although the costs to their mental health of such an extended period of restriction were increasingly evident. There were some obvious changes that the prison should have made to improve matters, such as ensuring that prisoners in protective isolation had more time out of cell. More ambition in general would also have improved the pace of recovery and alleviated the evident and growing strain on prisoners. This is partly a matter for local managers, but there was no doubt that they needed to feel they had the autonomy from HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to innovate.”

– End –

Notes to editors

1. Read the report: HMP Preston scrutiny visit

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 scrutiny visits (SVs) in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. These are short inspections which, while not as exhaustive as our full inspections, are more in-depth than the short scrutiny visits used in the early months of the pandemic. They include the reintroduction of a prisoner survey.

4. HMP Preston was built in 1790 and later enlarged as a radial prison. The four wings leading from the centre building were constructed between 1840 and 1895. Since 1790, it was used as a civil defence centre and a naval detention quarters, before becoming a training prison for category C prisoners. In 1990 it became a local prison.

5. This scrutiny visit took place between 4 and 11-12 August 2020.

6. On pages 12-13 of the report you can find a summary of key concerns and recommendations, and four examples of notable positive practice identified by inspectors.

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