Skip to main content

Covid-19: Impact on the Prison System

Volume 811: debated on Monday 22 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the (1) welfare, (2) rehabilitation, (3) sentence management, and (4) mental health, of prisoners.

My Lords, protecting prisoners and their mental health and well-being has been our priority throughout the pandemic. We know that necessary health measures have come at a cost to other work, and we continue to support prisoners with their rehabilitation through vital family contact, education, work and exercise. We have learned lessons from the first wave; we have reduced inter-prison transfers, and we have had better success in moving prisoners to lower-category prisons to aid their rehabilitation.

My Lords, as Anglican Bishop to Prisons in England and Wales, I am aware that during the pandemic prison chaplains have continued to provide vital support, but other support services have been limited. Prisoners have been kept up for long periods, self-harm has increased, and Covid deaths and infection rates are on the increase. Therefore, will the Minister agree that the Government should follow the recommendation of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody regarding a wider vaccination of people living and working in prison, not least to allow proper exercise, socialisation and education?

My Lords, first, I pay tribute to the work the chaplaincy organisation does. Chaplains from all faiths do important work in our prisons. They have been there during the pandemic, and that is much appreciated. So far as vaccination is concerned, we follow the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s recommendations on priority groups. Prisons have now been given permission to vaccinate all those in cohort 9, meaning everyone aged 50 and over. Noble Lords will be aware that the age range of the prison population is different from that of the population generally.

This month, the director of public health for Derbyshire confirmed that high rates of Covid infection in the dales are entirely attributable to the significant outbreak at HMP Sudbury. Indeed, nine of the country’s 10 worst surges in Covid are occurring in areas around prisons with outbreaks. The Minister did not really respond to the right reverend Prelate’s reference to the independent advisory board, which has repeatedly warned the Lord Chancellor that it is unsafe to require unvaccinated prison officers to escort prisoners with Covid to hospital in handcuffs or to require prisoners to share small, poorly ventilated cells with someone who has the virus. That advice has been ignored. This is endangering not only those on the prison estate but those in the surrounding communities where prison officers live. Why?

My Lords, I do not want to repeat what has been said, but on vaccinations we are following the approach of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which we consider appropriate. The action we have taken in prisons has meant that the number of deaths seen in them is significantly lower than the approximately 2,700 deaths modelled by Public Health England last spring. There is rigorous testing in all our prisons and we do everything to make sure that there is no transmission of the virus into or out of them.

If we are to end the miserable sight of the Friday queue of released prisoners with plastic bags standing at the bus stop with nowhere to stay and no work or training, rehabilitation work must be started and continued before and after the prison gate. Meaningful training has all but halted in our prisons, so can the Minister reassure us that everything that can be done will be done—within the next weeks, not months—to enable the programme of rehabilitation training in prisons to be recommenced? If it cannot, will the Government reduce the prison population?

My Lords, I assure the House that everything that can be done within the appropriate prison regimes, given the prevalence of the pandemic, will be done. Releases are a different situation; we monitor them against the prevailing pandemic issues.

My Lords, Covid has had a debilitating effect on so many people, but it is even more difficult to cope with in prison. What are HMG doing to allow more outside activities in these times, for rehabilitation and to help the mental health of prisoners?

My Lords, the mental health point is critical. We continue to work with our partners in the NHS on mental health and have put in place a number of additional provisions to this effect. On videocalls with families, we have given increased PIN credit to ensure that prisoners can call their families more often, and we have also provided packs which prisoners can use in cells. There is no doubt that mental health is a problem, but one must bear in mind when considering this that many people in the prison population came into prison with mental health issues.

My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord German, is the Minister aware that there is an increasing number of offenders being discharged from prison on a Friday afternoon with little money and nowhere to live? Does he accept that this is a perfect recipe for further crime and, sadly, more victims of crime? What action is being taken to put in place robust, effective, proper discharge arrangements for these offenders?

My Lords, the position on money is that prisoners are released with a discharge grant. There can also be an extra payment to an accommodation provider, together with an appropriate travel warrant. However, accommodation is key. We are launching a new accommodation service which provides up to 12 weeks of basic temporary accommodation for prison leavers who would otherwise be homeless. We are trialling that in five of the 12 national probation regions in England and Wales. We believe it will mean that 3,000 prison leavers will be kept off the streets. Keeping people off the streets and giving them money until they can access social benefits is critical.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, when he said:

“Empathy and kindness from many staff have made a real difference”

to prisoners,

“and it will be full active days spent out of the confines of a nine foot by six foot cell that define recovery in the longer term”?

Does he also agree that videoconferencing can play an important role in keeping prisoners in contact with their families?

My Lords, I am in substantial agreement with the noble Lord on both points. I am very grateful that he mentioned videoconferencing, because that is something we have put a lot of time and resource into. Of course it is not as good as seeing somebody literally face to face, but I believe we have all found out over the last few months that videoconferencing is a decent substitute when real face-to-face contact is not possible.

Will the Minister look at the study Rehabilitation by Design, which was sent to the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, and emulate experiences from around the world which make prisons better places of learning and true rehabilitation as well as making it easier for prison officers to monitor the condition of prisoners?

My Lords, we look at a broad range of research, including the study to which the noble Lord referred. We drew on that study when designing the new-build prisons to ensure that the additional 18,000 prison places are safe, decent and secure. We have committed over £4 billion to deliver these prison places across England and Wales by the middle of this decade.

My Lords, given the Government’s intention as expressed in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to replace prison terms with community sentences for less serious crimes, would it not make sense to immediately follow the call from the Prison Reform Trust, noting the exceptionally harsh restrictions prisoners have been enduring, for the release of low-risk prisoners who might well not be imprisoned under the brand new law to ease pressure and improve conditions for prisoners and staff, and reduce pandemic risk?

My Lords, the plan for managing releases continues to be guided by the appropriate legislation and a public health assessment of what can safely be implemented. I am sure we will debate the Bill to which the noble Baroness refers at length over the coming months.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Saracens Sport Foundation. In normal times, the foundation runs an excellent project that reduced reoffending dramatically among young offenders. It was put on hold and the beneficiaries were allowed out of their cells for only 30 minutes per day because of the lockdown. However, a lockdown letters campaign was organised where many people in the Saracens community wrote to every individual inmate on the project to keep them connected while sharing their own experiences of lockdown. Does my noble friend agree that these are just the sorts of things we must look at to help rehabilitate inmates post Covid?

My Lords, the very short answer is yes. The slightly longer one is that I agree with my noble friend that programmes such as this are just the sorts of things which are important to ensure the successful rehabilitation of inmates. I commend the Saracens Sport Foundation on all its work to support inmates to stay connected during the pandemic. Sport and physical activity play a very important role in prisons. That has been curtailed during the pandemic, but I hope very much that we will be able to resume it, with the support of partners such as the Saracens Sport Foundation, and that we can provide such activity both inside and, with appropriate supervision, outside prison.

Sitting suspended.