Prisons after lockdown: restrictions, regimes and recovery

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Francesca Cooney, Head of Policy | 19 July 2021

A prisoner studying a Maths distance learning course in his room.

In the first of three blogs about how prisons are recovering from the pandemic and what this means for prison learners, PET’s Head of Policy Francesca Cooney argues that we need to recruit more prison officers to successfully support education delivery.

Today, 19 July 2021, lockdown restrictions are being lifted for people living in England. For many, life will be almost ‘back to normal’, as offices and businesses reopen, schools, colleges and universities make plans for September, and leisure activities are allowed. But for people living and working in prison, life is nowhere near normal.

Prisons are closed, claustrophobic, crowded places, holding lots of people with health difficulties. Because of the heightened risk of Covid spreading quickly in prisons, the lifting of restrictions there does not mirror what is happening in the community. For the last 15 months, people have been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day and many are still locked up for long periods.

People in prison read newspapers, listen to the radio and watch TV, and they can see what is happening in the wider world. This can be extremely frustrating and stressful for people inside, who are comparing their experience to that of people in the community. Progress is painfully slow.

Working in a new, different way

Visits, activities and education are at last happening in most prisons – but not in the same way they used to, and still with lots of adaptations and limitations. At the moment, because of social distancing, numbers accessing education and workshops are limited; even before Covid there were too few education and activity spaces.

But now that activities are happening again, prisons are looking to the future. There is a lot of discussion about how recovery will work in prison and what changes may be implemented.

Read the second part of the series on changing the core day here

Many prison managers and officers are keen to work in a new, different way. There has been a realisation that moving hundreds, sometimes over a thousand men through small spaces at the same time might not be the safest way to operate. In particular, staff want to avoid the hotspots during movement times when violent incidents and trafficking of illicit items can occur.

During lockdown, prisoners have been put into smaller cohorts to limit contact with larger groups of people and to try and stop the spread of Covid. Many staff think this is safer, and some prisoners agree.

So, the idea is to see whether such cohorts can work long-term. Prisons are planning for less mixing between wings and smaller groups of prisoners moving across the prison. This will mean prisoners spend more time with the same people and more time on their wing. It will also mean less time accessing activities in classrooms or workshops.

Understaffed and inexperienced

The massive challenge is that supervising smaller groups of people means more officer time.

Despite some excellent work recruiting officers prior to Covid, this inevitably stopped during lockdown and officer numbers are still lower than a decade ago. And there is a growing problem of a lack of staff experience, with a third of officers having been in post for under three years.

In addition, over half of the officers who left the service last year had been in their role for under three years, meaning retention is a significant problem too.

The priorities for recovery

It is really important that new regime changes post-Covid do not limit people’s time out of cell. Even if movement across the prison is more limited, we can’t start with the belief that people can only be safe in their cells or on wing.

Read the third part of the series on changes to in-cell study here

Following these assumptions through to their logical conclusion will create an incredibly impoverished regime with hugely negative implications for prisoners’ life chances on release.

Prison learners need access to the workshops and classrooms where they will gain the knowledge and skills needed for successful resettlement. Further limiting access means that even more people will miss out on the opportunities they need.

If prison education is to recover effectively, governors must involve education staff in key decisions and consult with learners about what is most important to them when planning new regimes.

After the psychological damage of the last 15 months, we believe that it is unacceptable to start from any planning assumption that will reduce or restrict time out of cell. Ultimately, facilitating safe access to education and activities depends on sufficient officer numbers. Recruitment and retention of officers must now be a priority for HMPPS.

This blog is part of a series of three on how prisons are recovering from the pandemic and what this means for prison learners. Read part two ‘changing the core day’ and part three ‘creating a positive environment for studying’.

© Prisoners' Education Trust 2021

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