Leaving prison in a pandemic

May 06, 2020

Leaving prison in a pandemic- how services are responding

For many years, people in prison have lived in severely overcrowded and appalling conditions. 70% of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded, with people living in close proximity with hundreds of others and many sharing cells – especially in local and category C training prisons, where most people are held. A recent government assessment highlights the risk of an ‘explosive outbreak’ of COVID-19 in prisons due to the confined living space and difficulties in social distancing and self-isolating.

People in prison rely on contact with the outside world to feel connected and prepare for life in the community. COVID-19 has made this almost impossible. There are no family visits or face-to-face external support. Resettlement plans are made via digital apps and passing paper forms through cell doors. There is no work or education available to prisoners and limited access to exercise outside the cell. Those sharing cells have no access to respite from others. The effect of these changes on the mental and physical health of prisoners – and the people supporting them – cannot be underestimated.

In order to relieve pressures on the prison estate, The End of Custody Temporary Release scheme was announced by the government. In principle this would enable risk-assessed prisoners, who are within two months of their release date, to be temporarily released from custody (Release on Temporary License or ROTL). It was originally estimated that around 4000 prisoners would be eligible for this scheme. However, most prisoners who met the early release criteria also met the standard Home Detention Curfew (HDC) conditions. HDC has less restriction than ROTL so most people have chosen to be released on their standard HDC date as planned, instead of early temporary release.

While there has been a drop in the number of people in prison during the pandemic (83,023 on December 27/12/19 to 81,124 on the 24/04/20*) this is a much smaller decrease than expected.  The need to isolate prisoners moving between prisons for 14 days on arrival has also created difficulties in tackling overcrowding.

People who are being released from prison (around 5,000 every month, which is the average number pre-virus) are entering an unrecognisable world. Services aren’t operating as usual and many people will find it harder to access what they need. There are a host of new societal rules and guidance to adhere to. Lockdown compounds what is already a hugely difficult time for people leaving prison.

One organisation supporting women coming out of Eastwood Park said:

“The reality for some is that when they walk out of the prison they do not know if they have a place to stay, they may have difficulties getting transport form the prison to their destination due to reduced public transport, then instead of face-to-face contact with probation workers they are having phone calls. These factors can heighten the feeling of anxiety, isolation, and that they are facing their struggles alone. Due to the lockdown and social distancing there is currently no opportunity for people to visit loved ones they may have already been separated from for long periods of time.”

Many organisations are adapting the way they work to deliver essential services to people in hugely difficult circumstances. For example, Local Authorities under government direction have been instructed to offer housing to all known rough sleepers. In Plymouth, two local providers have joined with the council to dramatically increase their housing provision. In neighbouring Cornwall the local authority have formed a housing and homeless COVID-19 cell. They have repurposed housing previously earmarked for shared ownership for people presenting as homeless, reopened decommissioned supported housing projects and are looking at setting up modular housing units.

Support in prison is being offered by multiple providers, working together to meet the needs of the clients. Innovative ways of working include Skype substance misuse groups, identical activity packs sent to children and their parents in prison, increased use of in-cell phones and the email a prisoner initiative.

One voluntary organisation working within prisons, BeTheChange, said that:

“Communication into and out of the prison has become difficult and much slower than normal due to reduced staffing within the prison and the restriction of movement around the prison itself. Our service has adapted to deliver our service differently to meet the needs of those we work with. This has only been possible by working in partnership with other services.”

It has been incredibly challenging for staff and clients, but one thing is clear, there has been a herculean effort to meet the needs of people experiencing multiple disadvantage in prison and during resettlement. The question will soon shift to how we move on from the pandemic. Will any reduction in prison overcrowding be maintained, or will we see large numbers of people return to prison? Will the people who have received emergency accommodation have anywhere to live once the crisis has passed? There is much to learn about the power of relationships in the response to the pandemic, as the urgency has led to coordinated measures that have at times felt impossible or unattainable in recent years. How we maintain some of these positive solutions far beyond the crisis is an immediate priority.

*https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/prison-population-figures-2020