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Howard League blog · 26 May 2022

The prison system after Covid-19

Last week, the Criminal Justice Joint Inspectorate (CJJI) published a progress report on the impact of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system. It describes a system where fatigued staff are struggling to deliver adequate services, and no agency – least of all prisons – is back to ‘business as usual’.

This bleak description will be familiar to anyone who has followed the Howard League’s blogposts about life in prison during the pandemic. Earlier this year, we invited Howard League members in prison, members who had loved ones in prison and young people in contact with our legal service to tell us what the pandemic had been like for them.

Fifty-six people shared their experiences with us, and this fifth and final blogpost summarises what they told us. It then sets out our concerns about the system’s recovery.

 

Experiences of lockdown in prison

As we explained in our first blogpost, lockdown was far longer and more absolute in prison than in the outside world.

Howard League members and young people on our advice line reported spending months in conditions amounting to solitary confinement. Several described the lockdown as dehumanising, caging people rather than rehabilitating them. As one young man put it, a decision had been made to “lock us up like animals. We’re prisoners but come on man, we’re human”.

Restrictions had lasted much longer in prison than in the community and had not been eased at the time of the survey. People told us that regimes in their prisons had not returned to normal and it was not clear when they would.

People described different experiences of the pandemic. Some older people explained that they had appreciated the relative quiet and calm of restricted regimes, while young adults had found the restrictions much more difficult and wanted regimes to return to normal immediately.

But most people told us that they had struggled with the loss of time out of cell, social and family contact and opportunities to keep busy. Relationships with staff had got worse, and staff shortages were preventing prisons from ending lockdown.

As one young man put it, a decision had been made to “lock us up like animals. We’re prisoners but come on man, we’re human”.

Some respondents explained that their mental health – or the mental health of their family member – had deteriorated and it had been hard to access the right support. Our second blogpost discusses the mental health consequences of the pandemic in more detail.

Restrictions on visits had also been difficult, as we explained in our third blogpost. In periods of complete lockdown, there were no visits at all. When in-person visits were reintroduced, there could be no physical contact and the atmosphere was less welcoming.

One person described the reintroduced visits as “inhumane”, explaining that distancing made conversation difficult the experience added to the distress felt by people in prison and their families. Another told us that it was “too much for many people, and I have started putting off visits so that my friends and family don’t have to go through all that”.

 

Our concerns about the future

In our first blogpost, we explained that we were awaiting the prison service’s plan for emerging from the pandemic. Two months on, the future remains unclear.

The gulf between the ambitions in the Prisons Strategy White Paper and the reality of prison conditions has not narrowed. The easing of restrictions remains inconsistent and uncertain: even prisons which have in theory moved back towards normal regimes are held back by staff shortages.

Positive innovations which emerged from the pandemic are being lost. We have found that extra phone credit and prison-issue mobile phones have been stopped and that, in one prison, even videolink contact is unavailable.

The gulf between the ambitions in the Prisons Strategy White Paper and the reality of prison conditions has not narrowed.

The day after the CJJI report was published, the Chief Inspector of Prisons told the Justice Committee that only one prison they had inspected (Coldingley) was making meaningful progress in recovering from the pandemic. Across the estate, regimes were held back by staff shortages and a “post-Covid torpor”; inexperienced staff were managing inexperienced staff; unsuitable people were being recruited and then leaving; and there was no pipeline of future officers. Though the national framework for Covid restrictions in prison was lifted two weeks ago, these problems remain.

We are concerned about the long-term consequences of the pandemic, which will likely worsen the significant health inequalities experienced by people in prison. We are also troubled by ongoing staffing problems – shortfalls, inexperience, burnout – which prevent people from spending enough time out of cell or taking part in meaningful activities.

We signed a joint letter led by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, calling for additional mental health support for people who have been in prison under restricted regimes, mental and physical health checks for everyone in custody (bearing in mind the significant risk of Long Covid), and support for frontline health and justice staff.

We have warned that the construction of 20,000 new prison places will only compound existing problems in the estate, compromising the positive intentions in the White Paper. The plan relies on the recruitment of thousands of additional officers, for a system that is already short-staffed.

While the government simultaneously pushes departments to cut tens of thousands of civil service jobs and plans to draw ever more people into the criminal justice system, prisons and probation are struggling to function within a context of severe national shortfalls.

In probation, this has pushed staff into what an inspection report describes as “survival mode”. In prison, it means that education, training, work, and other activities are cancelled at short notice, that healthcare appointments are delayed, and that people spend even more time locked in their cells.

More time in cell cannot solve the dire problems prisons faced before the pandemic.

Staff shortages have also affected the relationships between officers and people in prison. As one man told us:

Staff shortages have added to the pressures and frustrations staff face, with the best staff often absorbing the majority of prisoner requests for assistance (since their colleagues simply ignore or ‘forget’ prisoners’ requests), leading to burnout. These frustrations have been taken out on prisoners in the day-to-day conduct of staff who have often been short or contemptuous in their demeanour with prisoners.

The Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service must address the damage that the pandemic has inflicted on mental health, staffing and morale. The last two years show that more time in cell cannot solve the dire problems prisons faced before the pandemic.

Long before Covid-19, regimes were already restricted by staff shortages, and by high levels of violence which led to restrictions on mixing and association, people staying in their cells to avoid conflict, and difficulties in placement and transfer.

One young man told us that he had been in prison four years earlier, and that the regime had been as bad then as during Covid-19 – though there had been more fights in 2018. However, as the CJJI report points out, even the severely restricted regimes in place during the pandemic brought violent incidents down only to “the same level that they were for the first 15 years of the century – a time when prisoners spent much more time out of their cells”.

According to the White Paper, the long-term plan for improving regimes and safety will depend on strong relationships between staff and people in prison and focused work to tackle drugs and debt.

Yet both drug use and violence are symptomatic of other problems in prison – including poor regimes and a lack of purposeful activity – and staff cannot hope to build strong relationships if there are not enough of them to get even the basics right. Until these fundamental issues are addressed, the system cannot recover.

Andrea Coomber

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