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The state of our prisons
IMB national report for 2019/20 finds prisons already ‘tightly stretched’ pre-Covid.

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The damaging cumulative impact of lockdown

Independent Monitoring Boards are an important part of the independent oversight of prisons. IMB members are a regular presence in those closed environments, monitoring the treatment and conditions of prisoners, regularly reporting what they find to those running the prison, and dealing with queries and concerns from individual prisoners. They are unpaid, but have statutory powers to go everywhere, talk to prisoners and see all documents. Their findings and activities are captured in their published annual reports.

Yesterday the IMB published its national report for 2019/20, summarising the individual establishment IMB reports published between July 2019 and March 2020. The main body of the report describes boards’ findings up to the end of 2019, before the lockdown that followed the Covid-19 pandemic. The report does also however address local boards’ findings in the first threee months of lockdown. 

Though the situation in prisons has changed dramatically since March, the issues that are raised in the main report are just as important and relevant during the recovery period as they were before the pandemic. The lessons from the ‘old normal’, as well as those learnt during the emergency, should help shape the future.

Last year’s national annual report described a prison system in ‘slow and sometimes fragile recovery’, dealing with the aftermath of a crisis resulting from the ‘combined impact of serious staffing shortages and an influx of new psychoactive substances, compounded by inadequate maintenance arrangements’. It also recorded some promising initiatives under the reform programme.
This report tracks that recovery and the progress of those initiatives.


There were some positive developments:

  • A number of prisons had established better arrangements with maintenance contractors, with the backlog of outstanding jobs being reduced, though this was not universal
  • Prisons not specifically designated as resettlement prisons were able to get more support from the local community rehabilitation company (CRC)
  • Staff numbers, and therefore regimes, had improved, though there were still concerns about the inexperience and retention of staff
  • The Ten Prisons Project had led to an increased focus on ways of preventing drugs getting into prisons
  • A number of prisons saw an improvement in healthcare provision, though mental health services continued to be under considerable pressure
© Andy Aitchison


There were also, however, some disappointing findings in relation to the improvements expected last year:

  • Many boards reported that the key worker system, rolled out with high hopes, had deteriorated after its initial introduction; and it has still not been introduced in the women’s estate in spite of the obvious need
  • Though some boards reported a renewed focus on equality and diversity, there was little evidence that this was driving change or was central to delivery
  • There continued to be significant concerns about safety, with rises in both self-harm and violence in many prisons, often driven by drugs and debt
  • While prisoners were unlocked for longer, there remained serious concerns about the quality and quantity of purposeful activity in many prisons
  • Some boards were able to report active moves to reduce the use, and length, of segregation, but overall there remained significant concerns about the number and kind of prisoners who spent prolonged periods in segregation
  • There was no demonstrable improvement in the arrangements for transferring or securing prisoners’ property, in spite of promises of change: almost every annual report deplored the consequences for prisoners
  • There remained concerns about the safety and stability of prisons holding young people under 18, and as yet little progress towards the proposed secure schools alternative.


Overall, the main report shows evidence of stabilisation and indeed some progress. This was most marked in prisons that came under the spotlight of critical public or ministerial attention, where a combination of increased resources, decreased population and new management led to measurable improvements. Yet it also shows that the prison system as a whole remained very tightly stretched, with many establishments struggling to maintain or embed improvements, even before the regime shutdown during the Covid emergency.
There are also two major underlying issues that we raised last year, where little if any improvement can be detected. They cannot be tackled by the Prison Service alone: they require cross-departmental and cross-agency cooperation.

  1. There are far too many prisoners with mental health disorders, and the more severe the mental illness, the more extreme the conditions under which they are held; often for lengthy periods in segregation. While there has been an improvement in mental health services in many prisons, it does not match the scale and complexity of need.
  2. Too many prisoners are released without stable accommodation to go to, and they are often the classic ‘revolving door’ prisoners; the new homelessness legislation has not significantly improved the situation.

Inter-departmental cooperation on health, housing and benefits has improved considerably during the Covid emergency; it should be a model for future working, not just a temporary crisis response.

COVID response

The prison service was praised for having avoided the predicted high mortality and infection rates. Boards also noted the actions taken by the service and its staff to mitigate the impact of severe lockdown, in maintaining indirect contact with families, trying to protect the most vulnerable and providing some in-cell activities. In spite of the very limited impact of the early release scheme, prisons remained relatively calm and safe places.

Nevertheless, boards also noted the damaging cumulative impact of lockdown on prisoners’ mental and physical health and wellbeing and their chances of progression and rehabilitation. There were concerns about the use of sanctions, such as the roll-out of the use of PAVA spray without previously agreed safeguards, and about hidden levels of distress and mental ill-health. There were particular concerns about the impact on children and young people, the withdrawal of rehabilitative work, and evidence of growing frustration and increases in self-harm, particularly in some women’s prisons.


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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2 Responses

  1. I seen a lot of my friends and family get lock up from mental illness, its sad, because the justice system makes money off people like this and this is just wrong. The best thing to do in these type situations is to get legal insurance, it is very affordable for people who can not hire lawyers upfront or by the hour. This will save you thousands of dollars, as it did for me an my family. If you do not know what legal insurance is here is a free guide you can get now

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