What is the Covid-19 Special Interest Group?
The Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) has set up a Special Interest Group (SIG) on Covid-19, in order to formally channel policy suggestions to the government on how they can protect people in contact with the criminal justice system and their families, and ensure the future of the voluntary sector working in criminal justice.
The RR3 is a formal voluntary sector advisory group to the government, consisting of 16 senior voluntary sector leaders, which is chaired and coordinated by Clinks. The Covid-19 SIG is sponsored by Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trust and Nicky Park, St Giles and consists of RR3 members, plus additional experts co-opted for their specialist expertise. The group meets weekly to make recommendations to the government.
This blog shares the key points that emerged from the eleventh meeting of the group on 3rd June 2020 - which was convened to discuss the latest plans from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) on the recovery of prisons and probation services after Covid-19.
Recovery of prisons and probation services after Covid-19
Following the easing of lockdown measures in society, HMPPS has published two documents that set out how they will lift restrictions in the criminal justice system: the National framework for prisons and the Probation roadmap to recovery. These set out the government’s overall approach, and a series of Exceptional Delivery Models (EDMs) will also be produced to provide more detailed operational guidance for local delivery.
You can access the documents and read the accompanying statement by Lucy Frazer MP QC, Minister for Prisons and Probation here; and you can read a blog written for Clinks by Dr Jo Farrar Chief Executive of HMPPS here. Clinks will also publish summaries of the documents and what they mean for voluntary organisations next week.
A joined-up approach?
Clinks and members of the RR3 SIG were pleased to see the publication of these documents. The prisons framework is a clear and well-structured document that sets out the different stages of easing restrictions and how decisions will be made to do so. It gives voluntary organisations a much better understanding of the likely processes and timescales before they will be able to deliver their services in prison once again.
There is still a lot however that is unclear. The SIG expressed concerns that the probation roadmap is less useful - not least because it is unclear whether it is solely directed at the National Probation Service, or intended for Community Rehabilitation Companies too.
The documents do not refer to each other and there is no mention of how these documents relate to existing agreements in prison - such as the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme, the National Partnership Agreement for Prison Healthcare in England and the probation reform programme.
There was concern that this lack of strategic clarity at the national level creates the potential for confusion at the operational level. The RR3 have asked a number of questions of HMMPS to help clarify these issues.
We need to build back better
Another concern of the RR3 was the way in which these documents seek to recover previous models of delivery - which many voluntary organisations will know were deeply flawed. If we simply return to normal, we will be restoring a system of overcrowded, underfunded and unsafe prisons, and a probation system that does not give people the support they need. This is additionally concerning, because as restrictions ease in prison, the impact on the health and wellbeing of tens of thousands of people in prison who have been living in quite extreme circumstances for an extended period of time will also become apparent. Prisons will have to engage voluntary organisations to mitigate the impacts of prolonged lockdown on the wellbeing of people in prisons, and will need additional resource to do so.
Successes have been made in this period. The crisis has provided an impetus to finally provide technological solutions that have long been asked for by the voluntary sector. Virtual visits in prisons have been successfully trailed on a large scale, enabling people to maintain contact with their family and loved ones at a time of hardship. While it will not be suitable for all people, some groups of people have benefitted from of a more flexible approach to probation supervision - with phone calls allowing them to keep in more regular contact with their probation officer, and reducing the need to travel to appointments, infringing less on their private and professional lives. There is much more that could be done - including enabling people to use in-cell phones to receive calls from providers who can’t access them in prison - but it is disappointing that the two publications do not even seek to consolidate existing advances.
Shaping the next stage
The RR3 has recently agreed a relationship with a new Third Sector Task Force (TSTF) in HMPPS. The TSTF was set up at the request of Lucy Frazer QC MP, to ensure HMPPS engages with the voluntary sector as it co-ordinates and integrates its work into the government’s broader response to Covid-19.
Clinks and the RR3 will work closely with the TSTF to ensure that relevant members of the group are able to shape the content of each EDM that will underpin the National framework for prisons and the Probation roadmap to recovery. This will be essential in reflecting the practical needs of voluntary organisations in the operational guidance, but also to elevate and emphasise the health and wellbeing needs of service users. The group has advocated for greater service user involvement in the development of this guidance too.
The TSTF has also commissioned the RR3 to produce a paper that sets out voluntary sector views on what the "new normal" for prisons and probation should be in the medium to long-term, for the Ministry of Justice/HMPPS to incorporate into their recovery planning. This will be submitted to officials soon, and published on the Clinks website.