Cracks starting to show
Faced in March 2020 with the possibility of many thousands of deaths in prison from Covid-19, ministers took a decision to try to contain the spread of disease without the significant reduction in prisoner numbers that the government’s health experts recommended. The fact that so few prisoners and staff have died from Covid-19 since March shows how everyone in prisons has risen to the challenge that decision created. It is not surprising that the outcome so far is hailed as a “success”.
But the second briefing from the Prison Reform Trust’s CAPPTIVE Project published on Sunday (4 October 2020) shows some of the price of that success. It is a price that prisoners have been paying, and will continue to pay for months and years to come.
It is a price paid in the day to day misery of confinement to their cells for 23 hours or more, over a period of five months so far. No-one yet knows what the lasting damage to people’s mental and physical health of that unprecedented regime will be. What we do know is that the loss of opportunities for progression and rehabilitation during this period means that prisons have not been delivering one of the core statutory purposes of sentencing. For many prisoners whose release is dependent on a risk assessment, that is likely to mean extra months or years spent in prison for a reason wholly beyond their control.
The briefing also describes some of the journey that relationships in prison have gone through. The early weeks of lockdown are characterised by an outbreak of empathy between prisoners and prison staff. Both prisoners and officers appear in their best light as they collaborate to make the best of a frightening situation. The gratitude from prisoners for kindnesses shown is genuine and near universal.
As time passes, cracks start to show in some places. For some staff, habits of informal punishment and favouritism re-emerge, and the idea that prisons might be better places to work if prisoners are more often “behind their door” gains currency.
The Covid-19 Action Prisons Project: Tracking Innovation, Valuing Experience (CAPPTIVE) builds on PRT’s Prisoner Policy Network (PPN). CAPPTIVE aims to listen to prisoners, their families, prison staff, and others to build a picture of how prisons are responding to the pandemic.
Like the PPN, CAPPTIVE is based on the insight that prisoners are experts in the experience of serving a sentence. That expertise is a vital component of making any change for the better. The charity argues that right now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when every aspect of prison life has been affected, it is vital that prisoners are heard. PRT is committed to involving prisoners in capturing the experiences of living under these conditions and to explore can be learnt from the “double lockdown” in prison.
In early June, PRT launched CAPPTIVE with an appeal in the Inside Time and Converse prison newspapers and National Prison Radio. The organisation asked people to share how the prison was managing under Covid-19. In addition to serving prisoners, PRT gathered information from families, prison staff, the Independent Monitoring Boards, voluntary sector agencies, and social media. The organisation drew on the Short Scrutiny Visits (SSVs) by HM Prisons Inspectorate. The charities Pact and New Leaf CIC provided evidence from the families and children of prisoners.
PRT is publishing a series of briefings on life under prison lockdown. The first briefing focused on the themes of families and communications. This new briefing explores the impact of a long period of lockdown, tantamount to solitary confinement for 23 hours per day for most prisoners, and the lost opportunities for progression and rehabilitation during this period.
Access to programmes
Prior to Covid-19, there were over 5,000 offending behaviour programmes completed annually.44 The quarantine regime stopped these, resulting in the disruption of sentence progression for many.
Evidence from prisoners indicated that the loss of programmes was a serious concern. According to the inspectorate of prisons, the lack of meaningful sentence planning had left prisoners “frustrated that their progress had stalled”.
Contact with offender managers
Meaningful contact with offender supervisors is integral to successful progression and resettlement. But contact with offender managers was severely restricted by the quarantine regime. The prisons inspectorate reported that some prisoners “had not had any contact with their offender supervisor for the last couple of months and many felt their sentence plan targets and their progression were being neglected during the restricted regime”.
The Parole Board recently published its “Covid-19 recovery plan” which highlights the steps that will be taken to “scale up video hearings” and expand the use of remote hearings. Undeniably, the board is demonstrating flexibility and innovation in ensuring that as many hearings as possible still go ahead. Martin Jones has stated that he has “personally written to nearly 50 prison governors to seek their continued support for parole business, including supporting instructions to legal representatives, and ensuring the required IT facilities are in place to carry out hearings remotely.”
While this is encouraging, it again highlights the variations between establishments in regard to these services. Two positive developments are the acceptance in principle that prisoners’ progression may have been delayed through no fault of their own, and the efficient move to video links to ensure that parole hearings continue. However, the implementation at the local level shows variation in access to remote parole hearings, which could potentially leave room for unequal or unfair treatment.
On 24 March 2020, with the implementation of the exceptional regime management plan, Releases on Temporary Licence (ROTL) were halted. For most of this period, temporary release licences have only been issued in a limited number of compassionate cases and for “essential” workers, although there are some signs of positive change. The curtailment of ROTL brought heavy costs for people across the prison estate. Some of the major concerns have been voiced by those at the latter stages of long, often indeterminate, prison sentences. Not having access to ROTL deprived many of the chance to fulfil certain requirements of their sentence plans. Anxieties centred on losing chances to be “tested” in the community: their ability to comply with ROTL conditions can demonstrate that they have reduced their risk and can successfully resettle in the community. Several CAPPTIVE correspondents expressed fears this will negatively affect their parole application and they will spend longer in prison as a result.
The impact of all these changes are highlighted by the experiences and worries raised by people in prison to the CAPPTIVE project:
“I’m not going to be able to do my home leaves, done 6 x ROTLs but didn’t get home leaves. My parole is Oct 2020 and this will probably stop my release through no fault of mine … I do feel I have been robbed and that Cat D is now pointless. (CAPPTIVE respondent, PPN, Category D Prison, 10 June)”
“Unfortunately, my ROTL board was cancelled because of Covid-19 … The most difficult part of that I haven’t seen my son since nearly 11 weeks!!! Not even video call. (CAPPTIVE respondent, PPN, women’s prison, 4 June)”
This briefing illustrates the challenge of leadership the prison service now faces. PRT Director Peter Dawson concludes:
“Strong, empathic relationships between prisoners and staff appear to make possible the seemingly impossible. A little kindness goes a long way. But those relationships will not withstand confinement that is excessive or needlessly prolonged. And some staff may simply not be interested in committing to that way of working in the first place.
Insisting on the right attitudes and the right relationships cannot be negotiable, but is not enough in itself. The purposes of prison include working to ensure that the person emerges less likely to reoffend than when they went in; and that depends on opportunities for meaningful activities that develop skills as well as self-esteem. So long as the ‘regime’ for any prisoner consists of 23 hour days in-cell, the public are being short-changed on their investment in prisons. The prison service has committed to a “rehabilitative culture”. Now is the time to double down on that commitment.”