HMP Leicester – severely curtailed regime for ten months in cramped, ageing prison

Read the report: HMP Leicester

HMP Leicester, a small and cramped prison nearly 200 years old, was found by inspectors to have been running a severely curtailed COVID-19 regime for ten months, with most prisoners out of cell for only 50 minutes a day.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons visited the prison in December 2020, when it held 294 prisoners – slightly fewer than the operating capacity, but many more than the prison was designed for.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Some areas of the prison were cramped and social distancing was a challenge for staff and prisoners. In areas such as wing offices, we frequently observed several staff gathered with little regard to maintaining a safe distance.”

There had been welcome pre-COVID-19 investment to improve conditions, including new in-cell telephones and a body scanner to combat illicit items. The prison had a high turnover and had continued to serve the courts and manage many short-term sentences throughout the pandemic.

Mr Taylor said: “It was acknowledged that the severely curtailed regime at the start of the pandemic was sensible to keep people safe, but 10 months later a very cautious approach remained and progress towards recovery was slow. Limited improvement in some areas had been hampered further by the second national lockdown shortly before our visit.”

Mr Taylor said: “The regime was consistent for most prisoners, but it remained severely limited and there had been very little improvement since March. Most prisoners had at most 50 minutes out of cell, including 30 minutes in the open air.”

The report noted that even less time was spent out of cell from Friday to Sunday. Many prisoners told inspectors that this prolonged period of isolation had had a negative impact on their mental well-being.

Mr Taylor added: “The recent introduction of classroom-based education for a small number of prisoners was encouraging, but too many remained locked in their cells with little meaningful activity.”

The ability of prisoners to maintain contact with their children and families had been limited throughout the restricted regime. Social visits had not restarted until October and had then been further curtailed to reflect national restrictions. One prisoner had not seen his daughter in nine months.

Recorded incidents of violence and use of force had reduced during the pandemic. Prison managers attributed this to a combination of the restricted regime and positive staff-prisoner relationships. In contrast, reported incidents of self-harm had remained high compared to similar prisons and one in five prisoners felt unsafe.

Most interactions between staff and prisoners were positive, but many cells were cold with little natural light and this was even more pronounced on the prison’s subterranean level. Not all cells were adequately equipped and access to clothing was a concern; for example, prisoners were only issued with two pairs of underpants a week.

Overall, Mr Taylor added:

“Managers, staff and prisoners had responded well to the early stages of the pandemic with a focus on reducing the risk of transmission and maintaining an environment safe from COVID-19. The continuing local community restrictions had understandably affected some aspects of recovery, but progress had been slow in re-introducing key strategic meetings and consultations with prisoners. More focus was needed on reducing the high levels of self-harm. The reduction in violence was welcome, but an emergency restricted regime is not a long-term solution to keeping prisoners safe and strategic planning will be needed to maintain any improvement when recovery from the pandemic gathers pace.”

– End –

Notes to editors

  1. Read the report: HMP Leicester. This report was published on 27 January 2021.
  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.
  4. On page 7 of the report you can read facts and history about HMP Leicester.
  5. On pages 10-12 you can read key concerns and recommendations and five examples of notable positive practice identified during this scrutiny visit.
  6. This scrutiny visit took place between 8 and 15–16 December 2020.
  7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at, if you would like more information.