Prisons and the Pandemic: Lessons for the Future: Guest blog - IMBs

Dame Anne Owers, National Chair, Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs)
Oct 23, 2023

For prisons, like the rest of society, COVID has been a stress-test. They passed the first test unexpectedly well. In a population forced into close proximity, with significant underlying health conditions, initial predictions of thousands of deaths did not materialise, thanks to speedy measures to contain the virus. However, this also involved severe containment of prisoners, with most spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells. Education and training, psychological interventions, social interaction and family visits all stopped or were hugely reduced. Now, frustration is building, as prisoners see community restrictions lifting at much faster pace than their own more extreme lockdown.

The Road Ahead

The road back to normality will be challenging. There are some positive lessons: prisons have had to move belatedly into the digital world: video visits, controlled use of IT, a freephone number for prisoners to contact independent monitoring boards. Many prisons reported less violence and self-harm - though there were significant self-harm spikes in many women’s prisons, and overall there are troubling signs of a cumulative effect on wellbeing. One open prison reported a tenfold increase in the number of men transferring from closed prisons who needed mental health assessments. Even the presumed advantages of prisoners being let out in smaller groups, able to relate better to each other and staff, can be illusory. In young adult prisons, there is some evidence of these small groups forming into mini-gangs; the staff-prisoner dynamic in a self-contained ‘bubble’ can be negative as well as positive.

In any case, safety is a starting point, not an endgame: the floor on which to build a structure that can reduce reoffending. This has been conspicuously lacking during the pandemic and needs to be rebuilt. There is a risk that the wrong lessons are learnt: that a more restrictive regime is beneficial for prisoners and staff. But prisons that just focus on containment simply recycle people and their underlying problems, to their detriment and that of society.

A Collaborative Future

So, what are the right lessons? Within prisons, as well as better use of technology, the restoration of the previously stuttering key worker scheme can provide and manage supportive staff-prisoner relationships. Both staff and prisoners will have to re-learn (or in some cases learn for the first time) the art of co-existing in a normalised and socialised environment. There is a chance to re-think education and training, especially given the poor performance of some existing providers, to integrate learning and skills-based work, linked to realistic job opportunities. There will be yet another bite at the cherry of ‘through the gate’ resettlement work, hopefully better thought out and more sustainable than previously.

But there aren’t just lessons for the criminal justice system. Prisons don’t build or rent homes, offer jobs, ensure effective community mental health or substance use services. Those are provided and resourced by others, including other parts of government. During COVID, it was partnership working that reduced homelessness and provided swifter access to benefits. That needs to be replicated on a larger scale, or prisons will still have rapidly revolving doors. Over the last year, prisoners largely accepted unprecedented restrictions because ‘we are all in this together’. It would be a huge loss if the aftermath of COVID was ‘things fall apart’ (again).