June 16. There are three ways of identifying the impact of the coronavirus:
- Pre-existing problems exposed by the pandemic
- Pre-existing problems exacerbated by the pandemic
- Pre-existing problems which the response to the pandemic failed to fix
In the UK, the prison system sits under all three headings.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons has just published a report on three women’s prisons, Bronzefield (the largest purpose-built women’s prison in Europe), Eastwood Park and Foston Hall.* It focusses on actions being taken to protect the prisoners from infection. “We found”, reported the inspector, “that self-harm had increased from the high levels seen prior to the restrictions being implemented.”
In these prisons, and across the system, levels of self-harm, up to and including suicide, were already at an unacceptable level, and would have remained so without the impact of coronavirus.
As I discussed in my diary entry a fortnight ago, the key failure of the Ministry of Justice was not implementing a plan to reduce the size of the prison population, particularly those serving short sentences which would have included many women. This is confirmed by the new report:
“The two early release schemes in operation had been largely ineffective in reducing the population. Despite the process taking up significant amounts of management time, only six prisoners had been released. This was a failure of national planning.”
Instead the women prisoners were subject to a host of restrictions to protect them from the virus. They were kept in their cells for all but an hour in two of the prisons and half an hour in a third. Face-to-face education ceased, although it was noted that “some limited one-to-one teaching support was given at cell doors.” Schoolteachers and university lecturers don’t know what they are worrying about. All family visits were suspended, which “had a particularly acute impact within the women’s estate.”
Above all, in the case of prisoners “with very high levels of need”, who had been “previously receiving significant structured support from a range of agencies”, the services “had stopped or been drastically curtailed at all three sites, creating a risk that these prisoners’ welfare could seriously deteriorate.” The consequence was felt in all three prisons: “Self-harm had risen since the start of the restrictions at Bronzefield and Foston Hall. The number of incidents was beginning to reduce at Foston Hall in May but remained above the level seen before the restricted regime was implemented.”
The report paints a picture of staff doing their best in impossible circumstances, working around obstacles as best they could, and in some cases finding new ways of alleviating the stress on prisoners. The inmates had phones which they could use in limited circumstances. At one of the prisons these were employed to help compensate for the absence of family visits.
“At Eastwood Park”, the inspector reported, “managers had established a scheme where prisoners could read a bedtime story to their children each evening.”
Makes you weep.
* Report on short scrutiny visits to Prisons holding women by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (19 May 2020)