In the same way as the government has started to outline its plans for the gradual lifting of the lockdown restrictions, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has also taken the first steps towards informing staff and service users of the likely road ahead.
Clinks has a dedicated line of communication with HMPPS who has made this same information available to us to ensure that we can give all voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system the latest and most accurate information.
Again, in a similar vein to the messages coming out of the now familiar daily briefings, senior leaders at HMPPS have been keen to emphasise that changes will be minimal in the first instance and that changes are vulnerable to being reversed, depending on the future spread of the virus.
Although there are no planned immediate changes to the current emergency regimes in prisons, probation and the youth estate, HMPPS is keen to start sharing the roadmap which it has been developing for some weeks now.
Prisons and the youth estate
As readers will know, the approach in custody has been based on “compartmentalisation” consisting of three main strategies: isolating prisoners with symptoms; shielding the vulnerable; and quarantining new arrivals. Alongside compartmentalisation, the plan has been to limit transfers of staff and prisoners between establishments, and to ease pressure on the prison estate through early release and temporary expansion of the availability of single cells in particular. The combination of this strategy and the reduction in court activity has resulted in a total fall in the prison population of 3,446 individuals on 15 May (when the most recent prison population figures were published, when the prison population stood at 80,422) compared to 28 February (the date of the first death by coronavirus in the UK).
Prisons, of course, remain a high-risk environment both because prisoners live at such close quarters with each other and the fact that sizeable numbers fall into vulnerable categories. HMPPS has made it clear that the temporary regimes with most prisoners restricted to their cells for most of the day are likely to remain largely unchanged in the short-term and that restrictions in prisons will be lifted at a slower pace than in broader society. The timing of the reduction or removal of restrictions within prisons may not mirror developments in broader society.
HMPPS is keen to reopen activities such as visits and education but cautions that progress is likely to be incremental and gradual and that, initially at least, there will be considerable restrictions and adaptations.
They are also keen to say that restrictions will not be lifted in a uniform way across the estate owing to the simple fact that different prisons are being affected by the virus in very different ways. While some prisons have had few, if any, cases of coronavirus, others have suffered local outbreaks. For the same reason, progress in individual establishments is unlikely to be in a straight line – restrictions may need to be re-imposed if the virus spreads within a particular institution.
HMPPS is well aware of the impact that the suspension of family visits has caused and has made a commitment to continue to support prisoners with additional phone credit, access to handsets and the piloting, and eventual roll-out, of video calls in ten prisons and Young Offender Institutions.
Again, HMPPS is saying that there will be no immediate changes in the way that probation services are being provided. Probation staff will continue to work from home where they can and to observe social distancing measures if they are meeting service users face-to-face. Where this is not possible, staff will wear appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).
HMPPS is working closely with partner organisations to develop the probation recovery plan and this will be undertaken in step with government advice. The recovery programme is being developed with the overarching priority of maximising staff and service user safety. HMPPS will take a cautious approach to any changes, only making them when they are confident it is safe to do so and ensuring they are well planned and understood before they are implemented. Many readers will be aware that Covid-19 struck in the middle of a major redesign of the probation system and accompanying national procurement exercise. HMPPS is working hard to ensure that the coronavirus recovery plan is closely aligned with the probation reform and workforce programmes to ensure that they are delivered in a way that minimises further disruption to frontline delivery.
HMPPS is keen to emphasise that both staff and service users in custody and in the community need to be prepared to be living with Covid-19 for a long time and that the future will be about creating a “new normal” rather than returning to the way things were before the pandemic struck.
The HMPPS Leadership Team want to stress their thanks to staff and partner organisations for their dedication and professionalism and service users for their cooperation and patience throughout this most difficult of times.