Lockdown puts prisoners at risk of serving longer sentences

Work with Offenders on the latest Prison Reform Trust report exploring the experience of lockdown in prison

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) has published the second briefing from its new CAPPTIVE initiative. The Covid-19 Action Prisons Project: Tracking Innovation, Valuing Experience (CAPPTIVE) builds on PRT’s Prisoner Policy Network (PPN). CAPPTIVE aims to listen to prisoners, their families, prison staff, and others to build a picture of how prisons are responding to the pandemic.

Like the PPN, CAPPTIVE is based on the insight that prisoners are experts in the experience of serving a sentence.  That expertise is a vital component of making any change for the better. The charity argues that right now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when every aspect of prison life has been affected, it is vital that prisoners are heard. PRT is committed to involving prisoners in capturing the experiences of living under these conditions and to explore can be learnt from the “double lockdown” in prison.

In early June, PRT launched CAPPTIVE with an appeal in the Inside Time and Converse prison newspapers and National Prison Radio. The organisation asked people to share how the prison was managing under Covid-19. In addition to serving prisoners, PRT gathered information from families, prison staff, the Independent Monitoring Boards, voluntary sector agencies, and social media. The organisation drew on the Short Scrutiny Visits (SSVs) by HM Prisons Inspectorate. The charities Pact and New Leaf CIC provided evidence from the families and children of prisoners.

PRT is publishing a series of briefings on life under prison lockdown. The first briefing focused on the themes of families and communications. This new briefing explores the impact of a long period of lockdown, tantamount to solitary confinement for 23 hours per day for most prisoners, and the lost opportunities for progression and rehabilitation during this period. For many prisoners whose release is dependent on a risk assessment, the fact that they are not able to attend offending behaviour programmes is likely to mean extra months or years spent in prison for a reason wholly beyond their control.

Lack of access to rehabilitation 

For the nearly 11,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences (9,000 unreleased; 2,000 recalled), this lack of access to programmes could lead to them spending significantly longer in prison than they might have otherwise. This is because they may be unable to demonstrate to the Parole Board that they have taken part in activities to reduce their risk.

A further 5,815 people serving extended determinate sentences, whose release is dependent on the Parole Board up until the end of their custodial term, could also find themselves spending longer in prison because of a lack of access to rehabilitation.

PRT reports that this uncertainty about release is leading to increasing despair and hopelessness and putting a significant strain on the mental health and wellbeing of prisoners, already suffering as a result of lockdown conditions.

The ‘exceptional regime management plan’ introduced in all prisons on 24 March saw people confined to cells for 23 hours per day or more; family and legal visits stopped; classrooms and workshops closed; offending behaviour programmes and sentence planning placed on hold; and release on temporary licence almost entirely suspended.

At the time the briefing was written, prisoners in England and Wales had been confined to their cells for 23 hours or more every day for almost five months. These changes mean that, through no fault of their own, prisoners cannot make progress on their sentence plans and risk being refused parole or transfer to a lower security prison as a result.

The PRT briefing contains the views of serving prisoners including one indeterminate sentenced prisoner who said:

“With no job, no courses, I worry about my sentence planning, [and] the impact that this will have on my parole hearing.”

Another prisoner serving a notorious sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) – scrapped in 2012 when the government agreed that it was fundamentally unjust, was in a similar situation:

“For myself it’s brought more uncertainty within uncertainty, because I am serving a short tariff IPP I had not long been on an offender behaviour course before lockdown (KAIZEN), and I was due for parole sometime after September, I was told but I never had a date which was eating away at my mental health and now I’m sure that I probably won’t see a parole board this year without completing this objective.”

The bottom line of the prison lockdown situation is not only that the experience of imprisonment has been much more harsh and extreme over the last six months but that a substantial minority of people are likely to service longer sentences under these conditions because they are not able to demonstrate to the parole board that they have reduced their risk of reoffending.