By Nina Champion, Director of the Criminal Justice Alliance
When the government has discussed its response to the pandemic in prisons, it has largely focused on how it has limited the spread of the virus through the estate. But the government must not forget that the virus is not the only threat to life.
People in prison have been spending up to 23 and a half hours in their cells per day, with little access to family, fresh air and education since March last year. This has taken a heavy toll on their mental health, as highlighted by members in our Routes to Recovery report and HMI Prisons in many of its inspection reports.
Some prisons across England and Wales had been slowly resuming activity, such as social visits and education, in line with local COVID-19 restrictions. But with the new national lockdown, all adult prisons have been moved back into Stage 4 of the National Framework, which means time out of cells will be severely reduced once again.
As well as the risk to mental health, there are other negative consequences of restricted regimes. Prisoners will have reduced access to training, education and resettlement support, which may make it more difficult for them to find work on release. This is especially concerning given that unemployment rates are rising due to COVID-19. People with convictions are often last in line for jobs, even at the best of times. Another risk is that people will be unable to access the rehabilitative programmes necessary for release by the Parole Board, leading to longer sentences and further despair and hopelessness.
There is one clear way to reduce these risks, and that is digital technology. The Ministry of Justice’s own research found that digital technology improves prisoner wellbeing and reduces tension and conflict. In-cell technology could give prisoners greater access to education, training, mental health support, restorative services, rehabilitative programmes and resettlement support. Distraction packs and worksheets are useful resources which might help pass the time for a few hours a day, but as the lockdown continues, they are not enough.
The call for better digital infrastructure in prisons is not a new one. Dame Sally Coates made such recommendations in her 2016 Review. But aside from some small pilot projects in some prisons, nothing has changed.
The start of the pandemic should have been the catalyst for a national roll-out of tablets and laptops in our prisons. Instead, the government has committed millions of pounds to build new prisons. It is frankly appalling that some of this resource hasn’t been used for the long-overdue digital upgrade across our prisons, which would be of significant value not just during this time of national crisis, but beyond. If the government truly wishes to reduce reoffending and create safer communities, it would do better to improve education, training and rehabilitative opportunities, rather than creating more prison places. The government should therefore invest in digital technology across the prison estate as a matter of urgency.
The government announced in April last year that it would release up to 4,000 low-risk prisoners nearing the end of their sentence, but very few were ultimately released, and the scheme was paused in August. In our Routes to Recovery report, we called for the scheme to be continued, given the likelihood of the second and third waves we are now experiencing. It must be restarted again immediately.
The former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, reported yesterday that there are alarming levels of distress, infections and death among staff and prisoners. It is a no-brainer: Releasing individuals who are nearing the end of their sentence early will reduce overcrowding, give staff more time to have meaningful interactions with people in their care, enable more time out of cells, and ultimately reduce the risk to people’s lives both in terms of their physical and mental health.