News & BlogHow is the Prison and Probation Service responding to the pandemic?
How is the Prison and Probation Service responding to the pandemic?
8th April 2021
Last summer, we held virtual meetings with CJA members to hear how COVID-19 had impacted the criminal justice system and to identify any good practice that had emerged. This culminated in our Routes to Recovery report, which set out what policy makers should do to aid recovery from the pandemic, and how they can build a stronger, fairer and more effective criminal justice system in the aftermath.
We recently held a meeting with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), so it could respond to the recommendations in our report and members could ask questions about COVID-19 recovery. We’ve highlighted some of the key points below.
HMPPS said that in the early stages of the pandemic, it gathered the views and experiences of 2500 prison residents and 1700 prison staff. People in prison described the importance of feeling safe and noted that being unlocked in smaller groups during the pandemic had reduced the opportunities for bullying and coercion. Respondents also highlighted the importance of relationships between staff and prison residents, and that joint initiatives, such as staff and residents coming together to do activities such as fundraising, had improved wellbeing. Many people in prison said the most important factor in wellbeing was contact with their families.
Gill Attrill, Deputy Director for HMPPS Insights, said HMPPS recognises that the effects of restricted regimes will accrue over time, and people who have never self-harmed before may also be at risk due to the very challenging circumstances. Operational staff are reporting that people are coming into prison with poorer mental health, with services in the community at full capacity or people being unable to access them due to the pandemic. HMPPS said it has developed a safety learning group which focuses on the wellbeing of people in prison as part of the overall safety programme, and is providing as much support as possible within the restricted regimes.
CJA Director Nina Champion asked how prison leavers are being supported at this time, and if they are being provided with mobile phones with internet to access support services. Gill said: ‘Whilst we have done quite a lot in a short time to give people in prison and on release access to phones and extra credit to use them we recognise lots of people (and their families) do not have access to mobile phones or other technology. This is a significant problem which is unfortunately beyond our resources to fix for everyone. You will appreciate that responding to the pandemic has meant a lot of money has had to be spent to keep things going, paying for overtime and new support and initiatives such as giving people in prison extra PIN credit to make phone calls and access to TVs.’
Sarah Fitzgerald, Head of Education Quality at HMPPS, said her team is working to improve access to digital learning; HMPPS has launched a Chromebook pilot and is upgrading Virtual Campus, a secure intranet system which allows individuals to access online learning material. She said HMPPS is also working at pace to ensure it has an in-cell education offer and has been improving the provision for people who do not speak English as a first language or who have low literacy levels throughout the pandemic.
One member working in restorative practice asked whether individuals in prison have input into course content and the way the course is delivered. Sarah said that individuals do have a say, but not in a consistent away across the prison estate. She reported that HMPPS recently ran a consultation with people in prison and highlighted some of the findings: ‘Many are saying that they’re more engaged in learning because it’s not in the formal classroom setting, and we’re engaging a broader range of our hard-to-reach prisoners than we ever did before. But, of course, what we want is to be able to have that high quality, highly ambitious curriculum for all in a medium that meets their individual needs.’
We also heard from Surini Ranawake, Head of Employment Outcomes at the New Futures Network (NFN), a specialist part of HMPPS that brokers partnerships between prisons and employers. Surini explained that when the pandemic hit, many NFN employment brokers were placed into operational roles within prisons, which is why the voluntary sector might not have interacted with them recently. The NFN team cover England and Wales and would, be very interested to hear from the sector – NewFuturesNetwork@justice.gov.uk.
NFN continues to liaise with employers, and Surini reported that businesses are keen to continue employing people from prisons during and beyond COVID-19. NFN is currently reviewing the impact of COVID-19 on hiring activity and considering what sectors it should be targeting, including how it can link with industries responding to the pandemic.
One member asked if there are any plans to increase Release on Temporary License (ROTL) in the near future. Surini said that throughout the pandemic, there have only been a few prisons allowing ROTL and in a very limited way. This is in line with national advice that seeks to keep staff and people in prison safe during the pandemic. NFN Employment Brokers continue to liaise with employers to keep ROTL placements open, even if they’re on pause for the moment. She continued: ‘We are working with prisons and employers to support the take-up of placements in a staged way and in line with national guidance. Placements which are close to the prisons, that might involve a reduced amount of travel and where there’s adequate PPE, for example, can possibly take place at particular prisons where it is safe to do so.’
One member highlighted the importance of motivating people in prison and getting them in the right frame of mind for work, which is difficult for voluntary organisations to do when they can’t work with individuals face-to-face. Surini said the NFN is considering how it can use video technology similar to that rolled out for court appearances and family video calls to enable this support, but there are some difficulties accessing this when it is being used for other purposes.
Tim Lloyd, Head of Family Services at HMPPS, said that the roll out of video calling technology had been one of the positives to emerge from the pandemic, although he noted there had been some implementation technical challenges, as we highlighted in the Routes to Recovery report. HMPPS is currently reviewing feedback on the video calls to see how they might be improved, but is keen to hear from more families about their experiences. HMPPS is also exploring how digital poverty and digital illiteracy might be preventing families from accessing video calls. Tim suggested that one possible solution is to explore whether families were able to join video calls from local probation offices. HMPPS continues to work with family service providers to support families with video calls and Tim reiterated that video calls will not replace social visits in the long-term.
CJA Director Nina Champion highlighted how some prisons had communicated effectively with families through newsletters and social media and asked what is being done to ensure this happens more widely. Tim said that his team are reviewing family communications, drawing learning from good practice throughout the pandemic.
Gill said that like many HQ posts during the pandemic, some of the operational staff working on diversity and inclusion have stepped in to support frontline prison and probation delivery. However, Gill said that despite this there has been a really visible, renewed commitment within HMPPS regarding equalities. She said: ‘We have a large scale, new race action programme and investment in it, and a very strong cultural push for diversity and inclusion led from the top. I feel really optimistic that we’re beginning to see a change towards greater emphasis on understanding equality issues and responding to them.’
One member highlighted that outcomes for Black, Asian and minority ethnic people remain poor, and may even be worsening, and asked how HMPPS is measuring success in this area. Gill said: ‘I think what we are doing [with the race action programme] is to achieve better outcomes, and we’re not there yet. But we are definitely having better conversations and really upping the energy and commitment and determination to do this. I’m not suggesting in any way that things have necessarily got better but I can see an intent, and I can see an energy in the system, which does give me more optimism. And we will be working very hard to try to turn that into real outcomes.’
Nina Champion asked what is being done to protect the physical safety and mental wellbeing of pregnant women in prison at this time.
Gill said: ‘There’s been a lot of work within the women’s estate looking at safety and wellbeing. We have seen quite a reduction in self-harm and violence for residents in male prisons, but we’re not seeing the same drop off in women’s prisons. We’re working hard to look after the women in our system. And we know for them issues of being connected to your family are particularly important.’
HMPPS welcomed our Routes to Recovery report and looks forward to working with CJA members in the future. Gill said: ‘Your report and the experiences of the voluntary sector and others are so important for us because you are a mirror for us, and you give us a fresh perspective. And you often bring a nuance to our understanding. So I just want to say thank you and I do find it really helpful. I particularly love it when we look at joint problem-solving together, where we look at what’s gone well and what are the opportunities to do things better.’
The CJA will continue to liaise with HMPPS in the coming months, pressing for the investment and policies which support effective recovery for all.