The Future of Prisons and Probation: Adapting to COVID Challenges and Embracing Technology

Jessica Kimbell, GovNet
Oct 23, 2023

“No vision for how prisons and probation can keep the public safe and tackle re-offending can ignore the context of COVID, because the pandemic has, of course, required those sectors to face their most significant challenge in at least a generation.”

This year, the Modernising Criminal Justice Conference began with the keynote; The Future of Prisons and Probation from a Ministerial Perspective.

It was given by Alex Chalk MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Assistant Government Whip. Alex began by providing context around his talk - a focus on COVID, paying tribute to those on the front line - Band 3 Wing officers, probation officers, mental health nurses amongst others.

“At the beginning of this pandemic, PHE’s worst-case scenario for prisons predicted around 2700 deaths. It is, after all, difficult to think of an environment more conducive to explosive outbreaks and in a community where the overall health is lower than the wider community. In the event, the figure is currently 121.”

“There are literally thousands of men and women alive today, that might not have been, without a robust, decisive, and, dare I say it, courageous response from HM PPS staff.”

Evidently, there’s been a shake-up of every industry and how they operate due to COVID. The custodial estate is no different. There has been reflection and the opportunity to choose a different path within this sector - but what exactly does that path look like?

The Future of Prisons and Probation

In the keynote, Minister Chalk exemplifies that a prison estate must be:

  • Secure
  • Decent
  • Rehabilitative
  • A place that engenders hope

However, he also acknowledges that these things will be challenged by the situation we are facing.

“Whichever part of the estate you are focusing on, recovery from COVID-19 cannot be about simply snapping back to life pre-pandemic, about lapsing back into old routines. It must instead be about laying the foundations for ambitious reform, which learns lessons from the pandemic and builds back a better system.”

What Does the Future Path for the Custodial Estate look like?

This path can be compartmentalised into a number of different, but complementary, projects:

  1. Continue to collaborate as one system and strengthen the partnerships developed within the pandemic response.
  2. Work on new regimes that will help manage the risks of violence.

In this context, Minister Chalk brings in the idea of digital innovation. Now, digital innovation has become a buzzword for the public sector for all the right reasons. Using new technologies has helped healthcare, the civil service, local councils and countless other public sector organisations. It’s only natural the prison systems should begin incorporating them into their work. 

“We’ve seen dramatic innovations during COVID. These have included, for example, the use of ‘purple visits’ to allow prisoners to maintain family links via video calls and the rollout of more in-cell telephony.”

Minister Chalk mentions how this innovation will be used, stating, “We will retain and expand the use of digital technology for remote hearings, education and family and social contact.”

“We are also using technology in the provision of digital healthcare so that increasingly, prisoners can receive treatment from the very people who will come to be caring for them on the outside.” 

Minister Chalk's point is to explore the future of prisons as a more ‘porous’ place for care, support and education, using technology to expand the level of rehabilitation and make it more accessible and universal for prisoners so that they can better themselves. 

Over the majority of the webinar, he lists the vast changes coming to the custodial services in the UK, improving both the supervision of offenders and reducing the chance of re-offending through proper, effective and supportive custodial sentences.

A New, Unified Probation Service

One of the biggest issues felt through the pandemic was the effect on probation services and the presence of unpaid work, as there are approximately five million unpaid work hours sentenced each year:

There have been unavoidable changes deriving from the pandemic, especially for interventions involving groups like programs and unpaid work particularly affected by restrictions. We now have a genuinely unmissable opportunity to respond decisively this summer as we launched a new unified probation service in England and Wales.

This is being done to unite staff across the National Probation Service and CRCs, in an effort to combine the management of all risk levels into one organisation. Alongside this, new national standards are being brought in to improve sentence management.

Overall, the hope is that this will deliver ‘visible punishment and reparation through better quality and more robust unpaid work requirements.’ Similarly, there will also be:

Overall, this all delivers a better alternative to custody while ensuring that the public feels safe and in the knowledge that justice is being done. 

Minister Chalk's speech ends with a short question-and-answer session with David Ormerod QC, Professor of Criminal Justice at University College London. If you would like to watch the keynote address in full, click play on the video below: