People in prison have revealed the devastating impact of Covid-19 restrictions on their mental health and wellbeing, in a briefing launched today by the Prison Reform Trust which examines the issue of prisoners’ health during the pandemic.

Based on evidence received from prisoners and their families from June to the present day, the briefing highlights the consequences for prisoners of being locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day for the past 10 months under conditions which amount to “prolonged solitary confinement”.

It also highlights measures taken by prisons which had made the situation more bearable. These include kindness and empathy from staff, access to exercise and other activities, mental health support, good communications and effective precautions against the disease.

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Commenting on the findings of today’s (11 February) thematic report on the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown in prisons by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“The Chief Inspector’s report shines a light on the hidden suffering Covid-19 has caused in prisons. Saving lives has come at a huge price for prisoners and their families.

“For all the heroic efforts of prison managers and staff, we should remember that their task has been made harder by the overcrowded and dilapidated condition of our prisons before the pandemic began. It is inexplicable that ministers will shortly introduce legislation that will inflate our prison population still further, knowing what the people who live and work in prisons have had to endure over the last year.”

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Commenting on the announcement by the Ministry of Justice that the rule which currently requires all parole hearings to be held in private will be relaxed, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“We are disappointed that the government has decided to press ahead with its plan for some parole hearings to be held in public. There is a clear expectation that the Board will only agree to public hearings rarely, however, and there is now a further process of consultation required to devise the procedural rules which will be needed to safeguard a fair process. Part of this must include whether the Board has the necessary independence and powers to ensure its decision making is not subject to political interference.

“No other aspect of the ‘root and branch’ review of parole has yet been made subject to consultation, and we can only hope that the review will now turn its attention to the question of why so few people are released on their parole eligibility date. The key issues are not about the Parole Board but about the prison and probation systems on which prisoners rely in order to be safely released in the first place, and to make a successful return to the community when they are.”

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We wrote to the Lord Chancellor just before Christmas complaining about the wholly improper comment from an unnamed government source in a Daily Telegraph article about “Helen’s Law”. That law puts into statute an existing Parole Board policy and practice of taking into account any refusal to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s body. The quote from the source implied an obvious threat to the Board’s future standing if it took decisions in such cases that appeared to go against public opinion—quite plainly not what the law requires and not what the Parole Board is for.

We have now received a response from the prisons minister. The response ignores the specific complaint, but does give a clear commitment to the board’s continuing independence. It sheds no further light on how the current “root and branch” review of parole is being led or conducted, however, and the history of internal MoJ reviews in this area does little to reassure.

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The prison service has “regressed” in its efforts to tackle racial inequality, a leading expert on equality and diversity in the criminal justice system has warned.

Writing in the latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile, Beverley Thompson OBE, a former senior civil servant and Race Equality Advisor (2004 – 2009) at HM Prison Service, says that “many in the prison service have either lost commitment and direction from their leadership or their organisational expertise and energy is depleted—seeking comfort instead from the dangerous mantra that ‘race has been done’.”

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Commenting on HM Inspectorate of Prisons annual report on children’s experiences in custody, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“This damning report describes conditions for imprisoned children that predate the pandemic. It shows a third of children not able to shower once a day. Most of these teenagers couldn’t even play sport once a week. More than two out of every five had been bullied. And in a system where over half come from an ethnic minority, the colour of your skin led to an even worse experience across almost every aspect of daily life inside.

But despite these shameful facts, the government has published a white paper which will reverse the steady decline in the number of children we imprison, and which accepts that its proposals will have a disproportionate impact on children of colour. Parliament should refuse to countenance such an appalling prospect.”

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Commenting on today’s (29 January) funding announcement by the Ministry of Justice, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:  

“These announcements are all welcome, and put some meat on the bone of the government’s commitment to reducing reoffending. A place to live and the means to earn your living are both crucial to giving people a fair chance when they leave prison. To achieve the impact the government wants, it will be essential that these modest commitments turn into a permanent, national investment in community based solutions to crime. The public are best protected when people get help long before there is any possibility of a prison sentence.  

The amounts of money involved in these welcome announcements are still dwarfed by the £4bn the government is planning to spend on new prisons because of its continuing love affair with imprisonment. And they sit oddly with last weekend’s quiet announcement that 500 new prison places are to be provided for women, marking the apparent failure of a clear existing policy to reduce women’s imprisonment. There is a long way still to travel to achieve a rational, evidence based approach to reducing reoffending.”

Peter has also written about this issue for The i Paper, click here to read the article.

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Commenting on today’s (23 January) funding announcement by the Ministry of Justice, Emily Evison, policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Reducing the women’s prison population is a central plank of the government’s female offenders strategy. Even a temporary rise in women’s prison numbers will be a mark of failure. Instead of planning for a rise, the government should redouble its efforts to ensure women are not being sent to prison to serve pointless short sentences. The national concordat provides a welcome framework for cross-government working to improve outcomes for women. However, it will need backing by action on the ground to ensure the effective coordination of services. The additional funding is welcome as far as it goes but doesn’t end the need for more sustainable funding of women’s services in the long term.”

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Commenting on the findings of today’s (20 January) thematic report on outcomes for young adult prisoners by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“The government is in a complete muddle about how to deal with young people who commit serious crime. On the one hand, it is determined to sentence even more young people—disproportionately young black men—to ever longer periods in prison. But then it fails utterly to make provision which might do anything to allow them to escape the situation which their lack of maturity has created in the first place.

“This is what comes from an overcrowded, under-resourced prison system. Governments are quick to legislate for harsher punishments. But they then condemn these young people at a critical moment in their lives to a system which is dominated by the pressure of simply finding enough spaces for people to be locked up. Strategic planning for the prison estate and for what goes on inside it is repeatedly blown out of the water by political expedience.

“There is no excuse for the situation the Chief Inspector describes. Far from protecting the public through imprisonment, the government is storing up a worse problem for the future. Young and disproportionately black young people are being denied a fair chance of building a decent future and growing out of crime.”

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We have today written to the prisons minister requesting more information about PAVA use in prisons. As we reported last year, we gave expert evidence in support of litigation brought by an individual prisoner and also supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. This produced some important outcomes putting on record commitments from the ministry. Our letter to the minister asks for evidence that those commitments are now being met. But it also repeats the request for other data which will allow for proper external scrutiny, and makes proposals to strengthen the central and local governance of use of force more generally.

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