On 24 March 2020, the Ministry of Justice announced that all prison visits in England and Wales have been temporarily suspended. This reflects the new measures announced by the Prime Minister which require us to stay at home (except for very limited purposes) and away from others to keep all of us safe and prevent the spread of the virus.
We are pleased to see Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) make this announcement. Over recent days the sector has been raising increasing concerns through the Clinks Covid-19 enquiry mailbox that it has been struggling to continue to provide support for prison visits and family contact while adopting government advice on social distancing measures.
However, it is important to understand what this means for prisoners and their families and what measures are in place to help people keep well and maintain vital contact with their family and significant others. It is also important to understand the role that the voluntary sector can continue to play in maintaining family contact in this context.
We have therefore been working, since the announcement, with HMPPS to get further information and guidance to share with the sector which we outline below:
Prisons in England and Wales have temporarily suspended visits to ensure the safe and secure functioning of prisons, while enforcing social distancing. The Government has said that they will review restrictions on travel and social contact in three weeks. HMPPS will keep the temporary suspension of visits under review. They will be restored as soon as it is safe to do so for prisoners, their visitors and for staff.
The GOV.UK prisons and coronavirus page will continue to be updated to provide the latest information.
There are a number of other ways to contact someone in prison if you are unable to visit them. For example, you might be able to leave a voice message using the Prison Voicemail Service or send them an email using the email a prisoner service. You can also write to them.
To help maintain vital family contact it has been announced that prisons will receive 900 secure phone handsets. This will enable the approved use of 900 locked SIM card handsets, allowing risk-assessed prisoners to speak to a small number of pre-authorised contacts. These handsets will help to ensure that prisoners across the estate, beyond prisons with in-cell telephones, can stay in touch with family and friends in a controlled and safe manner. The phones will also give prisoners access to support services like the Samaritans to reduce their risk of self-harm
If you have urgent concerns about someone in prison you should call the prison directly. Contact details are available on the Prison Finder.
HMPPS appreciate that family and friends may have concerns about the health of individual prisoners.
Prisons have been working closely with Public Health England / Wales, the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to manage the challenges posed by the virus for prisoners and staff.
Existing, well-developed procedures are in place to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases and prisons are well prepared to take immediate action whenever cases are identified.
Latest updates on confirmed cases in prisons
Please go to the GOV.UK prisons and coronavirus page to find the latest information on which prisons have confirmed cases of coronavirus. In all cases, establishments are following Public Health guidelines and local contingency plans, including measures to minimise the risk of further infection.
The National Probation Service will continue to supervise offenders in the community. However, the methods of supervision will be carried out differently to reflect advice on social distancing and to reduce face to face contact where appropriate.
Clinks will continue to work with the voluntary sector and HMPPS to explore the implications of Covid-19 and the necessary response to it and how we can ensure that the sector can continue its important work providing the support that prisoners, those under supervision in the community and their families need through this difficult time.
For example, we have begun to hear reports of possible early releases from prison in response to Covid-19. It is important to stress that this has not been confirmed. However, we will be working to understand any proposals and share as much information with the sector as we can, as early as possible. The voluntary sector can play a vital role in supporting this process, making sure people receive support through the gate which will be all the more vital in the current public health context.
Keeping in touch
We have set up a Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group special interest group on Covid-19 to formally channel policy discussions and suggestions into The Ministry of Justice and HMPPS and will share weekly highlights from meetings through regular blogs and Light Lunch.
We have also set up a new mailbox for voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system who have concerns or questions regarding how Covid-19 will affect their operations or the information they should provide to service users. In the first instance, organisations should direct these queries to their local contact or contract managers but if you struggle to get them answered we have a dedicated line of communication with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to discuss issues being raised and aim to set up a new web page with answers to frequently asked questions and other sector-specific information. Email email@example.com.
We have also created a new webpage which pulls all our information and updates on Covid-19 into one place in addition to useful resources and information for the sector.
Tell us about the current impact Covid-19 is having on your voluntary organisation working in criminal justice - fill out our 5 minute survey by Tuesday 31st March here
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The RR3 special interest group on Covid-19 will today convene voluntary sector leaders to discuss what is needed to mitigate the impacts of the virus on CJS voluntary organisations and the service users they support. We'll publish the key points from the discussion in a blog.