Learning from COVID-19: Insights from the Prison Inspection Process

“In terms of learning lessons, it’s really important that we learn the right lessons and we don’t jump to conclusions about what those lessons may be.”

An important topic today is how the prison system is learning from the impact of COVID-19. More specifically, how prison inspections have been carried out under restrictions and the lessons learnt from time spent operating within the height of the pandemic.

This topic was discussed in depth at the Modernising Criminal Justice Conference 2021, by:

  • Dame Anne Owers, National Chair, Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs)
  • Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales (HMI Prisons)
  • Justin Russell, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, HM Inspectorate of Probation

Headed by David Ormerod, Professor of Criminal Justice at University College London, the panel focused on how things have changed due to the influence of COVID-19 on prison inspections and wider prison processes. 

How Have UK Prisons Adapted to COVID?

The reach of prison services and those offered by third-party organisations was greatly diminished throughout COVID. In terms of inspections, ‘scrutiny visits’ were developed, where smaller teams of inspectors would go into three institutions of a similar type to develop reports of the institutions.

At the same time, the What happens to prisoners in a pandemic thematic was produced, exploring the effects of the pandemic on prisoners, finding a "decline in prisoners’ emotional, psychological and physical well-being."

On the thematic findings, Charlie Taylor commented:

"The cumulative effect of such prolonged and severe restrictions on prisoners’ mental health and well-being is profound. The lack of support to reduce reoffending and help prisoners address their risk of serious harm to the public does not fill me with hope for the longer term […] Locking prisoners up in prolonged isolation has never been a feature of a healthy prison."

COVID-19 affected prisoners by having them spend around 22 hours of their day in their cells. They were unable to socialise, participate in educational activities or see their families. According to Taylor, these individuals didn't feel they were ‘making progress with their sentences’.

Working on different ways of carrying out everyday work wasn't just a situation the Inspectorate found itself in. Commenting on COVID’s impact on the IMBs’ work, Dame Anne Owers stated:

"We shouldn’t underestimate the success of having contained COVID within prisons. The predictions, of thousands of deaths, mercifully didn’t happen. But prison's only job isn’t just containment. By virtue of doing that, and prisoners spending, as Charlie has said, so much time in their cells, the other bit of prisons is the rehabilitative bit. 

But also, the mental health issues for prisons. I think there will be a long COVID effect in prisons, of the fact that men and women have been locked up for up to 22 hours of the day for 15 months."

Owers mentioned how the impact on mental health has been increasingly discernable. She stated that, during Autumn 2020, there were 10 times more mental health assessments being carried out than usual. There was also a strong correlation, particularly in women’s prisons, between the extent of lockdown and the presence of self-harm incidences. 

Because of the pandemic, there has been a positive uptake in innovation within the prison system. There’s been the increasing use of digital solutions, which have helped improve connectivity and visibility. 

However, Owers stated that digital shouldn’t be seen as a ‘magic bullet’, as communication can’t be solely provided through digital means. Individuals in prison need personal contact. This is part of a wider concern that Owers has: a hope that we should invest in and restructure the entire custodial ecosystem.

“Yes, we’ve got to invest in prisons,” commented Owers. “We’ve got to make sure they are the best possible space for people who are in them to be able to turn their life around. But if the investment is just in prisons, it won’t work. We need to invest in those things that should have happened before prison, that need to happen during prison, that also need to happen after prison and that could happen instead of prison.”

COVID’s Impact on Probation in the UK

“We’ve had to radically change the way we do inspections,” began Justin Russell. “We stopped going on-site into youth offending teams and probationary offices at the end of March (2020) and we’re still not back on-site. We’ve found that we can do our inspections remotely through Microsoft Teams and other platforms to do our interviews and analyse case files.”

“The probation service that we’ve been inspecting has probably had the most challenging year in its history. It’s had these two huge challenges to face, one was the expected challenge of COVID and having to switch its entire operating model overnight at the end of March of last year and put in place exceptional delivery arrangements.”

“The second parallel challenge has been the move back to a unified service… Running both of those things in parallel has been a massive challenge for the service.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the probation service was huge. At one point, they had around 2,000 staff having to self-isolate, courts couldn't operate and unpaid work couldn’t be delivered on-site. By May 2020, less than 10% of probation appointments were carried out face-to-face.

However, not all impacts of COVID were negative. For those on probation, there was a preference towards the new ways of communicating with probation officers and staff. For example, having probation meetings over the phone meant there was no need for parents to arrange childcare or use public transport. 

Unfortunately, this preference wasn’t shared by all. There was a minority, such as those with mental health issues or those in prison for a long time, who struggled with the lack of face-to-face contact. 

The transition into a unified service that Russell mentioned is just the beginning of what's needed to transform the probationary service:

Structural change by itself won’t be enough to solve all of the problems we’ve seen in the service. It really needs proper, sustained investment. They’ve had £150 million extra this year which has been welcome, but there’s a really important spending review coming up and the Government really needs to commit to three or four more years of increased recruitment and the resources needed to get the quality up and case loads down.

Watch the Panel Session In Full

The main areas of focus identified by the panel were investment in the wider prison system and how that system can improve the lot of individuals either in custody or on probation, particularly regarding their mental health. 

On receiving feedback from those within the probation system, it was identified that there was a ‘reluctance to disclose that they had a mental health problem unless they felt safe to do so.’

“Particularly at the beginning of the process,” began Russell, “People didn’t feel it was safe to tell the police they had a mental health problem because they were worried about the consequences of that.”

To discover more of what Owers, Taylor and Russell had to say on the state of prisons and the impact of COVID on things such as inspections and probation, watch the panel session in full by clicking the video below.