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The impact of COVID-19 on the voluntary sector in criminal justice
Isolation and anxiety about COVID has had a severe impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people in the criminal justice system.

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Delivering services in a pandemic

Yesterday (7 December 2020) Clinks published a new report detailing the impact of coronavirus on the voluntary sector in criminal justice. Since the start of the pandemic, Clinks has been collecting evidence through surveys, virtual events and our dedicated Covid-19 mailbox about how the voluntary sector in criminal justice is faring.

This research has resulted in an in-depth picture of the impact of Covid-19 on service delivery, people in the criminal justice system, staff and volunteers, and funding.

The findings show that organisations working in criminal justice continue to work relentlessly and flexibly so that they can keep meeting the needs of the people they serve.

However, the research also gives many causes for concern. Voluntary sector organisations are having to make difficult choices as they reckon with the disruptive impact of the pandemic on service delivery, dramatically increased need among the people they support and significant financial pressure – forcing many organisations to deplete already limited reserves.

Service delivery

Throughout the pandemic most voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system continued to operate to some extent. They adapted to remote delivery where possible and some organisations continued office-based tasks at home (61%), using telephone and video conferencing for case work (51%) and setting up telephone advice lines (38%). However, not all of their work can be easily replicated into remote delivery. As a result, despite increased demand, service provision has fallen – as indicated by 58% of respondents to the most recent Clinks survey.

Clinks reports that there is still much uncertainty over returning to face-to-face delivery. The uncertainty is exacerbated by the unpredictability of changing lockdown rules and inconsistent policies and procedures across different sectors, agencies and areas. Safety measures and operational procedures to protect against Covid-19 have been inconsistently applied across the prison estate creating barriers for organisations to feel confident about restarting services safely.

The impact on people in the CJS

Charities consistently reported that the needs of the people in the criminal justice system they support have increased during, and as a result of, the pandemic. Organisations highlighted a range of issues that are causing this. They raised concern that the isolation and anxiety created by the pandemic and the restrictions put in place has a severe impact on the mental health and wellbeing of people in the criminal justice system. This may be particularly acute for people in prison who are facing a more prolonged lockdown where they are confined to their cells and have limited contact with loved ones.

Organisations also reported that the basic needs of people in the criminal justice system are going unmet during the pandemic and more are pushed into poverty as a result. More people are facing greater challenges accessing welfare, employment and accommodation. As a result more organisations are having to provide more crisis intervention to support people with basic necessities such as food. 

Accessing safe and stable accommodation was particularly cited as one of the biggest challenges facing people in the criminal justice system during this time with the existing housing crisis being exacerbated by the pandemic.

Poverty and disadvantage

The impact of the pandemic on people facing poverty and disadvantage has been exacerbated by limited access to statutory services during this time. Coupled with this, voluntary organisations have clear concerns that they aren’t able to reach as many people with much needed support – 62% of respondents to one survey said the number of people they were supporting had decreased. Organisations are also concerned about responding to people’s heightened needs within the limitations of such a restrictive environment. Over half (51%) felt that the quality of support they are able to offer has decreased during the pandemic.

Clinks found that the pandemic has hit some cohorts in the criminal justice system especially hard. Organisations that provide tailored support to women highlighted that lockdown has increased the risk for women and girls of domestic abuse, exacerbated the multiple forms of disadvantage women in the criminal justice system often face and creates added pressures for women with children.

Black and Asian people have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 in positive cases and deaths. When combined with the high risk environment of prisons, black and Asian people in prison have face heightened risk to Covid-19. The structural racism embedded across society against black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people means they also stand to be disproportionately impacted by the exacerbating effects of Covid-19 on poverty and disadvantage. More than ever, voluntary sector services led by and for people from BAME communities are vital to support BAME people through and beyond this crisis. However, the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the power imbalance facing BAME-led organisations, leaving them feeling marginalised, unsupported and ignored and making it more challenging for them to support their service users.

Working/volunteering during the pandemic

The pandemic has impacted not only staff capacity and the way that staff have had to work but also their mental wellbeing. This is something that continues to present a concern. Staff too have faced isolation during the pandemic. Some are anxious about job security and the challenges of managing work and their other priorities whilst working from home.

Organisations have responded well to staff wellbeing during this time, ensuring additional support measures are in place, and are looking for more ways to stay connected while many work remotely. This includes more regular virtual catch-ups, online resources to support selfcare and coping mechanisms and in some cases additional annual leave or wellbeing days.

Volunteer support has decreased as a result of the pandemic, with 58% of respondents to our latest survey saying this was the case. As a result, the capacity of organisations that rely on volunteers and continue to run services is significantly impacted. Others saw a drop in volunteers because they were not able to deliver the services they needed them for. This may not immediately create significant capacity issues but presents challenges for volunteer
retention in the long-term – which could cause issues when remobilising services.


The pandemic has disrupted income generation and in a number of cases increased expenditure. As a result, organisations are using their already limited reserves to sustain themselves with concern about depleting them. 27% of respondents to the fifth Clinks survey anticipated they could only continue doing so for three months or less.

The initial response from grant and contract managers has been generally positive but ongoing communication with contract managers about the impact on contracts, relief payments and targets has been inconsistent, leaving organisations that have been unable to remobilise due to restrictions in prisons and the community heading into uncertain positions. Added to this, organisations are at risk of being excluded from current and future commissioning opportunities due to a lack of resource at this time to engage as they focus efforts on frontline delivery through the crisis. The capacity challenges have been particularly acute for smaller organisations who do not have staff dedicated to
bid writing and fundraising and have been particularly struggling to manage in the crisis.

Many organisations have not been able to fully operate their social enterprise and trading arms during the pandemic, creating significant loss of income and endangering sustainability. 51% of respondents to the most recent Clinks survey said they had lost earned income as a result of the pandemic. This is particularly challenging for those that rely on these
income sources to subsidise contracts and puts them in a very vulnerable position — many charities who run prison visits centres rely on the income from refreshments to underpin their finances.

Whilst funders have redirected funds to provide much needed support for organisations to respond to this crisis, organisations are struggling to access grant funding opportunities for services not related to the Covid-19 emergency response. The lack of long-term grant funding opportunities and funding for core services is presenting challenges for organisations to plan for the future and recover their services.

The report concludes with the worrying concern that many charities in the criminal justice sector have been left uneasy about their long-term sustainability. In particular, concern is growing about the future
availability of funding from trusts and foundations and cuts to government funding.


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