Last Friday, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons reported on the increasingly urgent need to move safely to a less COVID-19 restricted regime.
More precisely, he argued that the ‘balance of risk’ between infection control and the well-being of prisoners in two women’s prisons was shifting. Inspectors found much to praise in their recent Short Scrutiny Visits including improvements in the treatment of people isolating with COVID-19 symptoms, and generally positive reports of staff to prisoner relations. This is of course hugely welcome. The very effectiveness of infection control measures, however, demands action from Government to enable prisons to avoid unnecessary long-term harm to the mental and physical health of prisoners and staff. This action does not appear to be forthcoming.
What do we currently know about the mental and physical health of those working and living in prisons during COVID-19?
The difficult reality is that faced with almost 23 hour bang-up; no face-to-face family visits for almost 4 months; and no classroom education; the toll of the pandemic is severe.
In six days in May five prisoners took their own lives. Justice Secretary Robert Buckland recently told the Justice Select Committee that rates of suicide among prisoners over recent months were broadly consistent with those of the same period last year. Ignoring for a moment that this equates to an awful rate of an incident of self-harm every eight minutes, these figures are not a sufficiently nuanced picture of the mental and physical health of prisoners to be reassuring. As one of the signatories to the National Partnership Agreement for Prison Healthcare, it is incumbent on the Ministry of Justice, among others, to deliver effective care that improves health outcomes for prisoners, including by reducing health inequalities.
And yet, just last week, the Prison Reform Trust shared data highlighting that less than a quarter of prisons have rolled out secure video calling between prisoners and their families, and the supply of mobile phones and other methods of compensating for the removal of face-to-face visits has, predictably, been far outstripped by demand. A recent NHS England survey that found 68% of respondents in HMP Send and HMP & YOI Downview said their mental health had deteriorated since 23 March and 71% said their physical health had deteriorated. This, unfortunately, is the pressure cooker environment of prisons during COVID-19. In the absence of purposeful activity, educational opportunities, and simple connection, rehabilitation and eventual desistence from crime will suffer. And as things stand, one of the many unhappy legacies of COVID-19 will be to entrench existing disadvantage in a group that we know from our work can flourish given the right support.
What, then, is to be done?
As an absolute priority, the Government must do everything in its power to support the return to the pre-COVID-19 prison regime. Young people in prisons who have been prevented from pursuing education and employability training as a result of COVID-19 constraints must receive additional support to help weather extremely challenging circumstances on their release.
At Spark Inside, as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, we have refocused our life coaching work in prisons toward prison officers, recognising their critical role and the many challenges of their work. But not all organisations will be able to adapt their support in this way, and interventions that could turn someone’s life around will simply stop. As in wider society, the presumption in prisons should be toward returning to normality as rapidly as safely possible, unless expert public health advice says otherwise. It seems bizarre to expect people living in prison to shoulder the burden of an extended period of physical and mental ill-health alone. Avoiding unnecessary harm to prisoners and staff due to COVID-19 restrictions therefore requires a timely and proportionate response from decision-makers across Government. As ever, voluntary sector organisations stand ready to support this response.