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Post-pandemic prisons should be about more than containment
IMB annual report for 2020/21 urges joined-up working and properly staffed rehabilitation work as prisons come out of Covid ‘cold storage’

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Lockdown is not a blueprint for safe prisons

The Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) have today (30 September 2021) published their national annual report for 2020/21 in which they warn strongly against continuing prison regime restrictions, and highlight the key lessons to be learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic. The report, summarising findings from IMBs in England and Wales before and during the pandemic lockdowns, shows that pre-existing problems in ‘cold storage’ during Covid still remain:

  • the lengthy segregation of prisoners with serious and complex mental health needs
  • the need to strengthen equalities work and reduce disproportionality
  • the provision of a decent environment, especially in ageing prisons.

During Covid, Boards reported on

  • the impact of 23 hours locked in cell on prisoners’ mental health and wellbeing, at a time when support was less available, with self-harm spiking in women’s prisons in particular
  • the significant damage caused by the lack of opportunities for rehabilitation and progression: education, vocational training, drug treatment and offending behaviour programmes, with worksheets posted under cell doors sometimes the only thing on offer
  • some positive innovations, including rapid roll-out of video visits for families, the speeding up of in-cell telephony and in some prisons the provision of laptops or iPads.

In the report, National IMB Chair Dame Anne Owers sets out the three main lessons from the Covid period, based on Boards’ findings:

  1. safety and rehabilitation is not a binary choice: the task is to make humane and rehabilitative prisons safe, with enough skilled staff and activity to engage prisoners, ensure a safer environment and reduce reoffending. Rehabilitation requires active cooperation with external services that can provide essential post-release support. Joint initiatives such as the Covid homelessness task force should become business as usual. 
  2. the digital revolution needs to extend to prisons to maximise prisoners’ ability to engage in prison and to equip them for the digital world outside. 
  3. the current plans to build more prison places risk spreading resources too thinly and therefore being less effective in reducing crime.

The report highlights five key issues, summarised below.

Mopping a cell at Aylesbury
© Andy Aitchison


While there were some improvements in staff retention across prisons, Boards continued to report staff shortages resulting in regime curtailments and increased time in cell, together with a high number of new and inexperienced staff. This was compounded during Covid-19 by staff absences due to sickness or isolation.
Even before the pandemic, the key worker scheme in men’s prisons was struggling, with staff diverted to other operational duties. The scheme was almost non-existent in the initial months of the pandemic and remains limited in both its delivery and impact. It did not exist in the women’s estate until after this reporting period. Boards, however, commended the welfare support that staff provided to prisoners during lockdown.


The incidence of violence and self-harm remained high in many closed prisons before the Covid-19 pandemic. Prisons holding young adults experienced significant fluctuations in levels of violence and self-harm, and Boards reported that very few initiatives were in place to tackle the specific issues within this younger population. Bullying and intimidation were commonplace at a number of women’s prisons and levels of self-harm remained exceptionally high. The use of challenge, support and intervention plans (CSIP) had however led to improvements in some prisons.

While the use of body worn video cameras had increased, their activation during use of force incidents remained patchy across the estate. Boards were the first to report the wider deployment of PAVA spray in men’s prisons. There were concerning variations and apparent disproportionality in its use.

At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a drop in levels of violence, as prisoners spent all but one or two hours a day locked in cell, with limited interaction with staff and other prisoners. As restrictions eased, some Boards began to report pockets of inter-prisoner violence and assaults on staff. In the initial months of lockdown, levels of self-harm also dropped in many men’s prisons, particularly those holding young adults, though by early 2021 Boards were beginning to report an increase after many months of lockdown. In women’s prisons, however, there were significant increases and spikes in self-harm during the year.

Fair and humane treatment

Budgetary constraints and a lack of investment had led to deterioration in the infrastructure and a backlog of maintenance work. There were some improvements in response time under the new GFSL contract, but Boards still reported delays in even the most basic repairs. In many cases, the result was a lack of decent living standards for prisoners.

There were particular concerns among Boards about the segregation of prisoners whose complex mental health needs could not be adequately treated in that environment. Boards continued to report unacceptable delays in transfers to appropriate NHS secure mental health facilities.

At many establishments, it seemed that equality and diversity was not prioritised, and staff charged with driving forward equality issues were often diverted elsewhere, even before the pandemic. Some Boards identified disproportionalities in the use of force, segregation and adjudications for black, Asian and minority ethnic prisoners.

During Covid-19, information deficits and the withdrawal of Home Office staff added to the stress on the growing number of foreign national prisoners. Provision for older prisoners remained patchy.

Health and wellbeing

Before the pandemic, there were some noticeable improvements in healthcare appointment waiting times though, due to staffing issues, cancelled or missed appointments remained an issue in many prisons. There remained serious concerns about the level of unmet mental health need. During Covid-19, healthcare services were reduced and in particular mental healthcare was initially restricted to crisis intervention.

Pre-Covid, some Boards reported full regimes and adequate time out of cell, though in other prisons regimes were limited due to staffing pressures. During most of 2020, prisoners in most adult prisons were locked in cells for 22-23 hours a day, though some establishments were able to offer more. This restricted Covid-19 fatalities to much fewer than predicted, but cumulatively had a severely detrimental effect on mental health and wellbeing.

Progression and resettlement

Pre-Covid, there were improvements in education attendance and success rates at some prisons, but elsewhere there were low levels of engagement and staffing shortages that resulted in class cancellations. There was still too little purposeful activity at a number of establishments. The shortage of category D places resulted in long waiting times for transfer to the open estate. Boards continued to raise major concerns about the imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence, with many prisoners held well beyond their tariff date. There was some improvement in resettlement support, including employment links, but too many prison leavers did not have permanent accommodation on release.

During the pandemic, opportunities for progression and rehabilitation were severely reduced. Education delivery was greatly disrupted and remained patchy across the prison estate. Offending behaviour programmes were also initially stopped and then significantly reduced. In the absence of social visits, remote alternatives, in particular video visits, were rapidly made available, though there were some technical issues that inhibited take-up. Very few prisoners were released under the early release scheme. Fewer prisoners left without some temporary accommodation, due to the national homelessness reduction scheme, but there continued to be problems with permanent accommodation.


Summing up the report and life in our prisons throughout COVID, Dame Anne Owers, IMB National Chair and a former Chief Inspector of Prisons said:

“The rigid Covid regime and prolonged lockdowns in prisons saved thousands of lives, but Boards’ findings show they cannot be a blueprint for safe and effective prisons that can protect society in the longer term.

Rehabilitative regimes are key to reducing reoffending, and need proper investment in staffing and activities – this means more than locks, bolts and bars.

The idea of ‘time well spent’ is positive, but it also means ensuring that resources are well spent, in the community as well as in prisons, to tackle the roots of offending and reoffending. Prisons will continue to have revolving doors if other key services – mental health, housing, substance use – have closed doors.”


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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