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HMP Frankland: Covid-19

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Morris.)

I thank Mr Speaker for granting this important Adjournment debate and I am grateful to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), for her call this morning in advance of this debate.

When society was shut down in March, millions of workers were told to work from the safety of their home, to protect them from the virus. However, for the prison officers and staff at HMP Frankland and the rest of our nation’s prisons, that was obviously not possible. Instead, they went into work because it was crucial that prisons remained operational in order to protect the welfare of prisoners and the broader public. In doing so, prison staff, like all frontline key workers, unquestionably put their health at risk, and their bravery in doing their job should be commended.

Does my hon. Friend agree not only that prison officers are to be commended for their dedication but that it is incumbent on their employers to ensure that the risks of covid-19, especially for those in the vulnerable group, are properly assessed?

That is of course extremely important; it is one of the issues that I shall outline in this debate.

The selflessness of prison staff and their commitment to their work brings me to the purpose of this debate. In recent weeks, HMP Frankland has experienced an alarming rise in the number of covid-19 infections. At the peak of the outbreak, around 66 prisoners out of a prison population of 850 were confirmed as covid-19 positive, meaning that around 8% of prisoners were infected. In addition, at the peak around 220 staff were off work, with 73 operational staff covid-19 positive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing this debate. I have a lot of constituents who work in Durham, Low Newton and Frankland prisons, and I pay tribute to the hard work they have done. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just about the operational staff? I have had a few cases in which the Prison Service has taken quite a rigid attitude towards those who are caring for vulnerable people at home and has not been flexible in its approach to some of those cases.

My right hon. Friend is correct. My discussions with the prison governor have shown how dedicated the prison is not just to the operational staff but to all the staff and prisoners and the wider prison community.

In total, given the covid cases and the numbers isolating, more than 20% of all staff employed by the prison were off work at the same time. It is clear that the number of infections at Frankland reached an alarming level, especially given what we know about the ease and speed with which the virus spreads. It is therefore not surprising that both Public Health England and the wider prison outbreak control team recommended that HMP Frankland move from stage 4 restrictions to the most severe stage 5 restrictions, in what would have been, in effect, a complete lockdown of the prison.

The recommendation was supported by the Prison Officers Association, which is extremely concerned for the welfare of prison staff and prisoners, because of the real fear that the virus was out of control in the prison. However, even though there was strong support for stage 5 restrictions from Public Health England, the outbreak control team and the POA, the gold command at HMP Frankland rejected the recommendation and instead reduced the number of prisoners allowed to exercise at any one time and the frequency of exercise; mandated mask wearing; and increased testing. This compromise was then accepted by the outbreak control team.

I recognise the pressures that the prison leadership is under, as well as the need to balance staff and prisoner safety with prisoners’ human rights, but I am concerned that the gold command seemingly rejected the initial advice of public health professionals. Does the Minister agree that local committee concerns should not be overruled by gold commands without being discussed at a national level first, especially when supported by Public Health England?

At HMP Frankland, I am happy to say that there is an extremely open and productive relationship between the Prison Officers Association and the prison’s leadership, and that this includes daily meetings and the sharing of Public Health England advice to the outbreak control team with POA representatives. However, as I understand it, while Frankland follows best practice on this, prison governors are under no obligation to share advice and recommendations with the POA. As the union is the representative of staff within prisons, this is clearly not right. So does the Minister agree that gold commands should discuss and divulge all Public Health England advice to and with the Prison Officers Association as the representatives of prison staff?

The infection levels among staff at HMP Frankland posed two serious problems. The first involves staffing levels as a result of covid-19-related absences. It is no exaggeration to say that the staffing cover was paper-thin due to these absences. HMP Frankland is a high-security prison, home to some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country. In such an institution, under-staffing poses an unacceptable risk to staff at work, to the protections offered to prisoners and to the general running of the facility. While staff shortages have not, at this stage, reached a dangerous level at Frankland, I think we can all agree that genuine threats to staffing levels at any prison must always be taken seriously.

The second issue is the threat the virus poses to the health of staff and prisoners. I am aware that Frankland is a secure environment in which there are already restrictions on prisoners’ activities and movement, which can help slow down the spread of the virus. I also appreciate that additional measures were introduced by gold command in an effort to avoid a move from stage 4 restrictions to stage 5. It is positive news that these measures appear to have had some success, with the number of staff off due to covid-19 dropping from 220 to 112, while the number of prisoners infected or isolating has dropped significantly. This is a welcome improvement, albeit one that will need to be monitored closely as restrictions are eased in wider society.

However, although the decisions to increase stage 4 restrictions in order to avoid stage 5 by HMP Frankland gold command may have lowered the numbers of staff and prisoners who have had to isolate, it is arguable that a short-term move to stage 5 would have been a lower risk and would have better protected those in the prison, especially as this was the initial advice of the outbreak control team. I know that even temporary stage 5 restrictions would have been exceptionally tough for prisoners, especially for their mental health. However, I want to be clear that the staff at Frankland are concerned about more than just their own welfare and that of their families; they are also concerned about prisoner safety. No prison officer wants a total lockdown unless it is completely necessary, as they know the impact that it would have upon prisoners. Yet, while the effects of a lockdown would have been harsh, it was arguably necessary to best keep prisoners safe from covid.

I also recognise the argument and understand the concerns that stage 5 restrictions could lead to prisoner dissent at a level that would pose a different sort of threat to staff. However, there are a number of reasons why I do not believe that this occasion on its own was an adequate reason to avoid a stage 5 lockdown due to covid-19. First, there is the fact that many prisoners are just as afraid of the risk of infection as staff are, and that they would understand the need for stage 5 restrictions if they were needed to protect them from a major covid-19 outbreak.

Secondly, there is the fact that, under stage 4 restrictions, any prisoner who must isolate as a result of possible covid-19 exposure is losing out on freedoms that other prisoners have, through no fault of their own. As a result, there is potentially an incentive for prisoners not to report covid-19 symptoms, so that they do not lose their access to exercise, showers and phone calls. If every prisoner is locked down under the same restrictions for a short period to combat a major infection spike, that potential is reduced.

Finally, there is the argument that a total lockdown could inspire some prisoners to act disruptively, putting the physical safety of staff at risk in a different way. While I know that there will always be a balance between managing the risk of prisoner disruption and managing the threat from the virus, it is vital that prisoner behaviour does not dictate the decisions taken to protect prisoners’ welfare, as well as the health and safety of staff. Does the Minister agree that the health and safety of staff should not be ignored in favour of prisoner appeasement?

It also strikes me that many of the negative implications of stage 5 restrictions could be resolved if prisoner welfare in general were improved. An example of that at HMP Frankland is the lack of telephone access in cells in comparison with other prisons. Does the Minister agree that telephones in cells would mitigate some of the impact of covid-19 restrictions on prisoners? Will she update the House on when HMP Frankland can expect to have such facilities?

The final issue I would like to raise is the treatment of prisoners in relation to wider society. While I understand that the leadership at Frankland took the decision to prohibit the use of gym equipment, I have also heard that that is not the case in all prisons in England. At a time when gyms have been closed nationwide due to the Government’s position that they are not safe to be open, it seems bizarre that gym facilities at some prisons have remained open. Will the Minister confirm that she believes that coronavirus restrictions in prisons should mirror those in wider society?

I want to praise the dialogue and the relationship between the governors at HMP Frankland and the POA representatives at the prison. They might not agree on every issue, but the strength of their working relationship has been stressed to me. In my opinion, it offers a great example to other institutions and employers across the country.

While the situation at Frankland is, thankfully, improving, it is a reminder that no matter how well an institution responds to covid-19, there is always room for improvement and lessons to be learned. Above all, we must recognise that there is a human element to these situations and that we cannot just look at numbers alone, alarming as they were. Prison officers work in a job where social distancing is often impossible and where the people they work with are not always compliant. That places an incredible level of stress on staff.

The prison staff and many of the prisoners at Frankland are afraid of the virus, as are those at every prison. Just like everyone else, they fear getting ill and the staff are scared of bringing the virus home to their families and to their communities. No one should have to work or live in an environment that is not safe. While prisons must stay open, no matter what the circumstances, the way in which they operate can be altered to keep people safe and to mitigate the risks to staff and prisoners.

I am grateful to the Minister for her time and to my right hon. and hon. Friends for their interventions. I hope that important lessons can be learned from this situation.

I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for securing this important debate this evening. As she started her remarks, she said that staff had done so much on the frontline in our prisons across the country. I start by paying tribute to them and recognising the important work that they have done in our prisons, together with PHE and the NHS. They are all working in extremely challenging circumstances.

I will start by explaining the general approach that we are taking in prisons to manage covid and then address the specific situation in Frankland against that background. It is important to understand the context before considering the particular measures taken in a particular prison.

From the outset of the pandemic, the safety of our staff and those in our care has been paramount. We have at all times been conscious of the potential for the virus to spread quickly in prisons, which, as they are closed environments, could lead to significant number of deaths. Indeed, in March, at the beginning of the outbreak, PHE advised us that we could expect 2,500 to 3,500 deaths in our prisons if we took no action.

When the first wave hit, we took decisive action early and changed how we delivered our services. We implemented significant restrictions in prisons to support social distancing, reduce physical contact between staff and prisoners and minimise movement between prisons. We stopped social visits and transfers.

To protect the most vulnerable, we quickly implemented our compartmentalisation strategy, which quarantines new arrivals, isolates the sick and shields the vulnerable. We brought in mitigations to cover staff absences and provided extra support for prisoners facing restricted regimes as well as those being released from custody during this challenging time.

We also recognised that the lockdown had an effect on the mental health of those in our care who were subject to the restricted regimes. We thought about ways in which we could continue to allow them to have contact with their families. We rapidly deployed video calling into 50 prisons within weeks. That helped maintain family contact for prisoners when face-to-face visits were not possible.

That robust response by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, working extremely closely with PHE, meant that we limited the number of deaths in custody. Sadly, 24 prisoners died of covid-related causes during the first wave. Although that is considerably less than the thousands of deaths that PHE initially modelled back in March, it does not detract from the loss experienced by the families of those individuals who passed away. I offer my sincere condolences to their loved ones.

In the 12 months to September 2020, 176 prisoners died of natural causes, including covid. That is only six more than in the previous 12 months. Each life lost is a tragedy and that is why we are doing everything to manage potential outbreaks of the virus across the prison estate in the second wave. However, we must also recognise that, given the length of time since the virus began, we now need to allow prisoners more flexibility in their regimes.

We recognise that the burden of covid-19 goes beyond the risk of infection. We are alive to the risk that anxieties about covid-19 and the regime restrictions required for infection control may exacerbate prisoners’ mental health needs. We take that extremely seriously.

We are now, thankfully, better prepared than we were in March to respond to the challenge and therefore some flexibility in regimes is now possible. We are continuing all the measures we put in place in March, but in addition, we have more effective measures from wave one. For example, we now have greater capacity to test prisoners and staff for the virus. We are implementing the weekly testing of staff and that of prisoners on reception and transfer. That is an essential tool to help identify outbreaks early, reduce transmission and bring outbreaks under control as swiftly as possible.

Our aim is to balance the risk of infection with managing prisoners’ wellbeing. To do that, we need to run the fullest regimes possible consistent with infection control. That is why we have given our governors the flexibility to react to the local situation, acting on PHE advice. We published our national framework in June. That sets out how we will take decisions about restrictions in prisons. It allows prisons to move between different stages of regime delivery according to their local circumstances.

We eased restrictions in prisons over the summer, but we knew that in some cases we would need to reimpose them temporarily as the risk changed or as part of our response to outbreaks. Although our interventions reduced the likelihood and impact of covid-19 spreading in custody, we realise that we cannot reduce that risk to zero. Prisons cannot and should not be cut off from the community. If the number of cases in the community rises, the likelihood of an outbreak in the local prison will also inevitably rise. We are therefore ready to intervene quickly in response to suspected or confirmed cases among staff and prisoners, and to provide further support. Our success in closing outbreaks in prisons in both the first wave and the second wave shows that our approach is effective.

Having outlined our national response, I now turn to the situation at HMP Frankland. I very much welcome the conversation I had with the hon. Member for City of Durham earlier today to understand the concerns that she raised. I have also had an opportunity to speak to the governor at Frankland. I thank him and his staff, and all those working in prisons, for all their efforts in this challenging period.

On 13 October, an outbreak was declared at the prison after members of staff developed symptoms and tested positive for covid-19. As the hon. Member mentioned, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, PHE and the NHS took immediate action and a multi-agency outbreak control team was stood up to manage the response. In response to that, affected areas of the prison were quarantined, contact within the prison was reduced to a minimum and social visits were suspended. Cleaning practices across the prison were enhanced and all staff and prisoners are now wearing face coverings.

A mobile testing unit was deployed to the site and contact tracing carried out to identify close contacts needing to isolate. That mobile testing has now been replaced by regular on-site testing within the prison itself. Staff are being deployed in groups to assigned wings of the prison to minimise the chance of cross-infection. Prisoners are grouped in bubbles for access to essential services such as showers, phones and medication.

As I set out earlier, we have planned for outbreaks such as the one in Frankland. Although prisons are, by their nature, complex and high-risk settings for covid, I have every confidence in the range of measures that we have in place to contain outbreaks. The governor of the prison has told me that the measures he is taking are having an impact, but of course we will continue to monitor the situation closely.

I would like to respond to some of the particular concerns that the hon. Member raised. She mentioned that the regime should go to level 5. Frankland is currently operating at the most restrictive measure within the framework that is reasonable in the circumstances. We cannot take away basic dignity—basic decency—for the men. It would be difficult to take away a shower and some time in the open air. Indeed, as the governor said to me earlier today, if we did so, we would not only put the mental health of the men at risk, but would heighten tension in the prison and put our staff at risk.

The hon. Member suggested that the POA and PHE support a different regime. I understand that PHE and the governor have agreed on a regime that both minimises the risk of infection and is operationally deliverable, and that continues to protect staff and prisoners from mental ill effects in the manner that I have described.

I, too, would like to thank the POA for its constructive approach. At national level, throughout this crisis, HMPPS has worked very closely with the POA, and I thank it for all its constructive work in this period. As the hon. Member mentioned, there has been a meeting locally at HMP Frankland every morning with the POA to discuss management of the prison, and relations with the POA locally are good. I understand from the governor that the local POA did not raise any concerns about the management of covid at the prison.

The hon. Member raised the issue of staffing. She is absolutely right to highlight staff absences at the prison. I have been reassured that the staff complement is sufficient, given the restrictive regime. As this is a high security prison, the staffing is higher than at other prisons. Of course, with a restricted regime it is also possible to operate with a lower number of staff. We keep all those measures under consideration, and have contingency measures in place across the country to ensure that additional staff and support can be provided where we have low staff complement.

The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned the Prison Service’s approach to those who are shielding or who might have other issues. If there are any particular instances, I will be happy to take them up; it is very important that we look after our staff across the estate. There was also a question about in-cell telephony. We have installed that over the last 18 months in 48,000 cells. Frankland is on the programme, with the aim to roll out for 2021-22, subject to funding.

We will continue to act based on public health advice to protect our staff, prisoners and the NHS over the winter.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.