HMP Whitemoor in COVID-19 – priority given to getting prisoners out of cells

Read the report: scrutiny visit to HMP Whitemoor

HMP Whitemoor, a category A men’s prison in Cambridgeshire, was found by inspectors in a COVID-19 scrutiny visit to have increased time out of cell for prisoners more successfully than in many other prisons visited during the pandemic.

Whitemoor suffered an outbreak of the virus in March but by the time inspectors visited in August 2020 there had not been a case of COVID-19 for 12 weeks. Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Managers had rightly prioritised increasing time out of cell, with some success. Most prisoners could be out of their cells for two to two-and-a-half hours each day, which was better than at many other prisons.”

Communication with prisoners had been good throughout the pandemic, and nearly all prisoners reported that they understood the restrictions, and that the reasons had been explained to them. However, Mr Clarke added, inspectors found “clear frustrations around the variety, quality and quantity of food and contact with families.”

Levels of violence and self-harm had fallen at the start of the pandemic. However, they were rising at the time of the scrutiny visit and self-harm had returned to pre-restriction levels. However, an impressive 100% of prisoners with experience of being supported through the assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) process reported feeling cared for by staff.

Inspectors were concerned, though, that 38% of prisoners felt unsafe at the time of the visit. They found a combination of those who felt physically unsafe and those who had anxieties about the pandemic. Behaviour management processes were limited or suspended at the start of the pandemic and inspectors found that, in the absence of formal processes, behaviour management relied on positive relationships between prisoners and staff. Inspectors were also concerned about the number of prisoners held in segregation and the length of stay.

Residential units in Whitemoor were relatively modern and all prisoners lived in single cells. As this was a long-term and settled population, many cells were personalised and prisoners took pride in keeping them clean. By contrast, the cleaning of communal areas required improvement.

Prisoners were very negative about the food. This was largely because the well-equipped self-catering kitchens had been closed. This meant that all prisoners relied on food cooked in the main kitchens, and they reported that the food was of poor quality and often cold when they received it. Equality and diversity provision also needed attention, though good partnership work meant that key health services, including access to nurses, the GP and mental health support, continued.

Managers had put in place some innovative initiatives to support family contact, and the introduction of video calling was also positive. In-person visits were about to be restarted but the number of restrictions and lack of weekend slots made them unattractive to prisoners’ families.

Mr Clarke added: “The key barrier to family contact was a shortage of telephones. The prison had tried to source additional wing telephones but this had been refused as HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) was going to deliver mobile phones for use in prisons. However, by the time these phones had arrived at Whitemoor, guidance had been issued preventing their use in the high-security estate. To resolve this, HMPPS should install more wing telephones without delay.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“We found that managers at Whitemoor had made significant progress in improving regime provision, and the prison was largely safe and decent at the time of our visit. However, establishing in-cell education provision had taken too long. Planning for the recovery was well advanced in some areas but more focus was needed on the issues that mattered most to prisoners. Put simply, managers needed to buy more telephones, improve the quality of the food and implement a safe way for prisoners to cook for themselves. In addition, managers needed to address and redress shortfalls in the areas of segregation, equality and diversity.”

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Notes to editors

1. Read the report: scrutiny visit to HMP Whitemoor

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. You can 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 Whitemoor is a category A prison holding around 450 prisoners at the time of our visit. Most prisoners were high risk, serving indeterminate sentences, and had been at the establishment for over a year. About a third of the population were category A prisoners. Whitemoor opened in 1991 as part of the high-security estate. The main establishment supported two regimes: a mainstream prisoner population and a population with personality disorders. Most prisoners were younger than those in other maximum-security prisons, and those who needed to be separated from others because of their offence were not held. One wing was specifically designated for prisoners with personality disorders. A close supervision centre, which opened in October 2004, was part of a centrally managed national strategy administered by the directorate of high security at Prison Service headquarters. It aimed to provide the most dangerous, disturbed and disruptive prisoners with a controlled environment, to help them develop a more settled and acceptable pattern of behaviour. The unit was not included in this scrutiny visit.

5. This scrutiny visit took place between 28 July and 5 August 2020. This is the first published report on a visit by inspectors using the enhanced scrutiny visit methodology.

6. On pages 10-13 of the report you can find a summary of key concerns and recommendations, and seven 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.