Coronavirus (Covid-19): The impact on prisons Contents

2Prison Population Management

36.Prison overcrowding is an issue that predates the coronavirus pandemic. Capacity issues have largely resulted from increased need for prison places and delays in creating new places. The National Audit Office reported that in December 2019, 60% of prisons in England and Wales were crowded, with the 10 most crowded prisons running at or above 147% than their uncrowded capacity, meaning that prisoners are sharing cells designed for fewer people.

37.On the Friday before the introduction of lockdown (Friday 20 March), the prison population had risen again, to 83,525 and operational capacity was 85,095.46 The current population, as of 10 July 2020 is 79,467 and operational capacity is now 81,353. The reduction in population arises largely from the routine release of prisoners not being matched by the number entering prison because the courts are processing fewer cases. The reduction in operational capacity reflects the move to single cell occupancy as a result of Covid-19, meaning fewer shared spaces are available.

38.To manage the prison population during the pandemic, and respond to capacity issues within the estate, the MoJ and HMPPS introduced various measures, including:

39.In addition to these measures the Lord Chancellor notes that the MoJ have been “expediting remand hearings to reduce the unsentenced prison population”.47


40.In March 2020, HMPPS issued ‘Cohorting guidance for prisons during the COVID-19 period’ to operational staff.48 The guidance sets out population management measures including:

Figure 1: Types of cohort units, HMPPS, March 202049

41.Commenting on the guidance, the Prison Governors Association (PGA) said:

“The PGA does not disagree with this position, but we have significant concerns in the ability to achieve this if prisons are full and cells remain doubled. Our members have reported to the PGA National Executive Committee that the challenge is immense. They have also reported to us that Public Health England and HMPPS require a reduction of 15,000 prisoners in order to truly safeguard prisoners and staff”.50

42.Public Health England in its April 2020 briefing paper - ‘Interim assessment of impact of various population management strategies in prisons in response to COVID-19 Pandemic in England51 - state that:

“Within prisons, the most effective form of compartmentalisation is single-cell accommodation, but it was recognised that this would require significant reductions in prisoner population to achieve across the prison estate (about 15,000 people was the estimate at the time of the original advice provided). But building on best evidence to protect the most vulnerable and reduce transmission of infection, new cohorting strategies were developed by HMPPS advised by PHE which were implemented from 31 March”.

43.Public Health England found that while outbreaks were occurring in prisons, there had not been the ‘explosive outbreaks’ that previous modelling suggested was possible if mitigation measures were not taken. Commenting on the approach taken and evidence set out by PHE, in a letter to the Committee in April 2020, Robert Buckland said:

“We are containing the spread of COVID-19 within prisons using an approach known as ‘compartmentalisation’. Through this approach, we are isolating the sick, shielding the vulnerable and cohorting new arrivals to reduce risk. This has been supported by further measures to restrict regimes and minimise inter-prison transfers.”52

44.At the time of writing its briefing paper, from engagement with HMPPS nationally and working with individual prisons, Public Health England were able to ascertain that “as of 21 April, around 25% of prisons have fully implemented the compartmentalisations strategy, around half have implemented Protective Isolation Units and Shielding Units in full, and around 35% have implemented Reverse Cohorting Units”.53

45.In an update to the Committee on 23 June, Mr Buckland spoke of the success of the cohorting strategy at limiting the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, he states that:

“the national scheme of cohorting that we introduced, which is now in about 98% of our prisons, whereby for the first 14 days new inmates were quarantined and kept separate, existing inmates who were symptomatic were put into a cohort and vulnerable inmates were shielded, has been the source of the considerable progress that we have made in prisons in limiting this unpredictable and worrying disease.”54

46.We are pleased to hear that more than 98% of the prison estate now has cohorting in place. This appears to have been an effective strategy for containing the spread of the virus and protect the lives of staff and prisoners. The Committee thank all of the staff who have worked to implement this measure.

Temporary release of pregnant prisons and women in prison with their children

47.On 31 March 2020 the Government announced that pregnant women and prisoners with children in Mother and Baby Units would be temporarily released from prison where assessed not to pose a high risk of harm to the public.55 In an update to the Committee on Covid-19, Mr Buckland confirmed that around 70 women were to be released.56

48.Many welcomed the Government’s announcement, including Women in Prison, PCS and the Criminal Justice Alliance. However, some raised concerns about the release planning process for this cohort of women. Women in Prison stated:

“Currently any plans for release do not appear to involve criminal justice charities, including women’s centres and other specialists, such as Birth Companions and Hibiscus. We welcome the announcement about releasing pregnant women and those on Mother and Baby Units (made on Tuesday 31st March), but this is only a tiny step and should have happened at the beginning of this crisis. We also have serious concerns about the release planning process even for his small group”.57

49.As of Friday 19 June, twenty-three pregnant women and mothers with babies in custody have been released.5859

50.The Committee welcome the Government’s decision to temporarily release pregnant women and women in prison with their children, whenever it is safe to do so. The Committee recognise that this cohort of women require specialist support in the community, but in the 14 weeks since the announcement was made, only 23 women out of around 70 eligible, have been released from custody. We ask the Ministry to explain why that is.

End of Custody Temporary Release

51.On 4 April 2020, the Government announced that selected risk-assessed prisoners within two months of their release date could be temporarily released. The press release stated:

52.On 24 April, the Ministry of Justice published an ‘Overview of the eligibility criteria’ and the process for offenders to be released under the scheme, which has been called “End of Custody Temporary Release”.61 The Government estimated that up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible for the scheme.62

53.While the announcement was widely welcomed, various concerns were raised about the rate of progress achieved in releasing prisoners and about the impact the scheme has had on population size. The Prison Governors Association raised initial concerns, stating that the scheme would not result in enough prisoners being released to sufficiently ease overcrowding. The PGA urged the Government to “be braver and make significant reductions”63 and noted that the 4,000 figure was not achievable given the strict criteria set out; it estimated that about 2,000 would be released and said this was nowhere near enough to free up the spaces necessary.

54.Dr Jo Farrar, Chief Executive of HMPPS told us that HMPPS was working closely with Public Health England on all plans, and that the release of up to 4,000 prisoners was not the only plan in place.64 At the same meeting, Mr Buckland noted that the figure of up to 4,000 releases would be a rolling figure, and that there was no one day on which everything was fixed.

55.Since then, concerns have been raised about delay in releasing prisoners and the low numbers being released. Helen Berresford, Director of External Engagement, Nacro, said in April that: “On early release, Nacro, like many other organisations, has been calling on the Government to increase the number of people released from prison and continues to do that. We believe that that needs to be faster and go further”.65

56.On 14 April 2020, when asked about progress made in releasing prisoners early under the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme, Lucy Frazer told us: “In relation to the wider early releases that we identified, we released four men last week and are planning to release a significant number this week”.66 When asked to clarify what was meant by a “significant number” the Minister responded:

“We will be seeing a significant number. As I said, I do not want to give precise figures, because, obviously, this is subject to the risk assessments that are taking place and the other matters to ensure that people can be released safely, but I would expect that, tomorrow [15 April 2020], we will have a few hundred people released, and that will continue.”67

57.As of Friday 3 July 2020, that expectation of a few hundred releases had not been met. 209 prisoners have been released under the Covid-19 temporary release schemes.68 No figures have been provided specifically on the number of children released, but as of 28 April 2020, fewer than 10 were deemed eligible for early release over the next three months.69 These numbers are significantly lower than the number of prisoners eligible for early release, and lower than the number of releases the Minister expected to take place on a single day in April. In evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in June 2020, Lucy Frazer commented on the success of the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme, stating:

“I know that it has not produced the number of releases that people had hoped for, but it is one part of our overall strategy on managing Covid within our prisons. In addition to releasing people, we have temporary accommodation coming into a number of prisons to increase our headroom, some of which are in the female estate. The scheme is not our only strategy for managing the prison population”.70

58.Commenting on the success of the scheme in its Report on short scrutiny visits to local prisons, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, states that “only one man across the three prisons [inspected] had been released under the ‘End of Custody Temporary Releases Scheme’”.71 HMIP further note in its Report on short scrutiny visits to Category C training prisons that: “The End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme had not had a meaningful impact on the population at any of the three sites. At Ranby, managers had undertaken a substantial amount of work around the scheme, but were frustrated that only five prisoners had so far been released, despite 64 being initially assessed as eligible for assessment of their suitability”.72 HMIP also found in its Report on short scrutiny visits to prisons holding women that “The End of Custody Temporary Release scheme had proved to be ineffective”.73

59.When asked by the Committee about the success of the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme, Mr Buckland stated that:

“While in the context of the whole pandemic the total [of individuals released under the scheme] might look low, it must be accompanied by the fact that since February, when we were near to 84,000 prisoners, the numbers in total on the prison estate have now dropped by about 4,000. They stand at about 79,500 as we speak. That in itself has been a significant contribution to the headroom issue that PHE identified and that we have endeavoured to follow. The work goes on. We are not saying that we are near mission accomplished.”

60.A little more than 200 of up to 4,000 eligible prisoners have been released under the End-of-Custody Temporary Release scheme, which has not, therefore, in itself, delivered a significant reduction in the prison population, or a reduction of the order that Ministers appeared to expect when they gave evidence to us and introduced the scheme by statutory instrument. We note that the scheme was implemented alongside other population management measures which have had a substantially greater effect in creating new prison accommodation or freeing up space; it is also the case that some prisoners who might have been eligible under the scheme will by now have reached their original release date, and that others, on assessment, would have been considered unsuitable for early release. We ask the Government to set out how many prisoners were actively considered for release under the scheme and the principal reasons why just over 5 per cent were in fact released early.

Accounting for the reduction in the prison population

61.The prison population has reduced since March. At the time of writing there were 4,058 prisoners fewer than on the Friday before lockdown. Most of the reduction resulted from ordinary prison releases as people reached the end of the custodial part of their sentences or were released from remand. In evidence to the Committee, Lucy Frazer told us that 890 people were released in a single day in the ordinary course of release.74 Such routine releases, combined with very small numbers of new receptions into prisons as a result of jury trial suspensions explains the reduction in population. In evidence to the Committee in June, Angus Mulready-Jones, Lead for Children and Young People, HM Inspectorate of Prisons said:

“I do not think that anybody could sensibly say it [End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme] has been a success in reducing the prison population. Obviously, normal releases have been happening throughout this time. A slowdown in court activity has meant that the population has slightly reduced, although this is likely to be a temporary reduction.”75

62.As court activity begins to increase, it is likely that the prison population will begin again to increase. In a written parliamentary question to the Secretary of State for Justice, Lyn Brown MP asked “if he will make an assessment of the effect of increased court activity resulting from the easing of covid-19 lockdown restrictions on the size of the prison population in England and Wales in the next six months”.76 Lucy Frazer replied:

“Any roadmap for transitioning out of the COVID-19 lockdown measures within the custodial estate in England and Wales requires close engagement across the whole of the criminal justice system, including with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, to understand the effects of renewed court activity and the potential impact this may have on the prison population. This work has already begun and we will keep Parliament informed of progress.”77

63.It is not clear what impact increased court activity will have on the prison population, and how MoJ and HMPPS intend to manage any potential influx as a result of increased court activity. The Committee are pleased to note that work has already begun on understanding the effects of renewed court activity; the MoJ should update the Committee on the progress of that work, and how they will manage any influxes in prison population that may result from increased court activity.

Temporary prison accommodation

64.To complement a reduced population, the MoJ has also sought to increase prison capacity. Temporary accommodation is being installed across the estate. In April 2020, the MoJ said that “it was working to identify publicly owned sites that could be used to house temporary prison accommodation to ease pressure on the permanent estate, further separate prisoners and reduce the spread of the virus”.78 On 9 April the Ministry announced that work to install 500 temporary, single occupancy cells within the existing secure prison estate had begun.79 The Ministry announced on 29 April that the recently closed Medway Secure Training Centre, would be temporarily reopened as an annex to nearby HMP Rochester, housing up to 70 Category D prisoners.80 Furthermore, in evidence to the Committee, Lucy Frazer stated:

“Another part of our strategy is to increase headroom by bringing temporary accommodation on to existing prison sites, within the prison perimeters. We have already started that process, and some of those additional units are coming on stream already. That will involve significant numbers as well - potentially around 2,000 spaces, in terms of headroom”.81

65.In a further update to the Committee on the deployment of temporary accommodation across the prison estate, the Minister noted:

“I can confirm that as of 21 May nearly 600 cells have been delivered across 17 prisons and 48 cells are already in use at HMP North Sea Camp, and further cells coming into use at HMP Hatfield. The remaining 15 sites… where cells have been delivered are undergoing final operational checks before they are occupied. We expect the number of operational cells to increase steadily over the coming weeks.

Our ambition is to place 2,000 temporary units (which includes the 500 previously announced) across the prison estate and this will support the compartmentalisation strategy we are implementing across the estate to protect and shield prisoners. This is an ongoing programme of work”.82

66.The Minister also confirmed that the additional measures taken to install temporary accommodation do not change the useable operational capacity of a prison and are intended as a means to increase residential space in prisons, e.g. by reducing the number of shared cells.83 Jo Farrar told the Committee: “We have introduced a number of new units in prisons through temporary accommodation to allow fewer double cells. We now have over 5,000 fewer people sharing cells than we had in February.”84

67.Robert Buckland updated the Committee on the installation of the temporary cells, stating that:

“We have now had the delivery of 896 units across 26 sites; 477 units have been installed and are ready for use, and 289 of them are now being used. We have opened up an annexe at HMP YOI Rochester to hold up to 70 males; 32 cells are currently in use. It is our intention to go further with regard to that accommodation because we think it will have some long-term benefits with regard to the way in which we can manage maintenance on the prison estate. Therefore, it is not, I am glad to say, a one-off investment that will only have limited use. It will have, I believe, longer-term benefits.”85

68.We welcome the sourcing and installation of temporary units to increase headroom across the prison estate. We welcome the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Summer Statement on 8 July that £60m is being made available to provide 1,000 temporary places. We recognise that this is ongoing work, but the Ministry of Justice should set out when they intend all 2,000 temporary units to be installed and when these units will be operational. Additionally, the Ministry should provide costings for the 2,000 temporary units, and set out how they intend to re-deploy these cells in the long-term.

46 Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison Service, Population bulletin: weekly 20 March 2020

47 Letter from Robert Buckland QC, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to Sir Bob Neill, Chair, Justice Committee, Statement of Principles from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhumane Treatment or Punishment (CPT), 28 May 2020

48 Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, Cohorting guidance for prisons during the COVID-19 period March 2020, p 3

49 Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, Cohorting guidance for prisons during the COVID-19 period March 2020, p 3

50 Prison Governors Association, Covid-19 Briefing, 6 April 2020

52 Letter from Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to Sir Bob Neill, Chair, Justice Committee, COVID-19 in Prisons: PHE Modelling, 28 April 2020

54 Q207 [Robert Buckland]

55 “Pregnant prisoners to be temporarily released from custody”, Ministry of Justice and Mer Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service press release, 31 March 2020

56 Letter from Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to Sir Bob Neill, Chair, Justice Committee, Update to the Justice Select Committee on COVID-19, 6 April 2020

57 Women in Prison, Covid-19 Briefing, 2 April

58 PQ 587 4 [Prisoners’ Release: Coronavirus], 19 June 2020

61 Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, End of Custody Temporary Release (April 2020)

63 Prison Governors Association on Twitter, 6 April 2020

64 Justice Committee, Summarised note, 7 April 2020

65 Q20 [Helen Berresford]

66 Q37 [Andy Slaughter, Lucy Frazer]

67 Q38 [Andy Slaughter, Lucy Frazer]

68 Q220 [Robert Buckland]

69 PQ 410 3 [Prisoners’ Release: Children], 28 April 2020

70 Oral evidence taken before the Joint Committee on Human Rights on 8 June 2020, HC 265, Q42 [Lucy Frazer]

71 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Report on short scrutiny visits to Local Prisons (April 2020)

73 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Report on short scrutiny visits to Prisons holding women (May 2020)

74 Q38 [Lucy Frazer]

75 Oral evidence taken on 2 June 2020, HC 306, Q9 [Angus Mulready-Jones]

76 PQ 465 2 [Prisoners: Coronavirus], 13 May 2020

77 PQ 465 2 [Prisoners: Coronavirus], 13 May 2020

79 Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, ‘Prison estate expanded to protect NHS from coronavirus risk’, accessed 19 June 2020

80 Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, ‘Further expansion of prison estate to protect NHS’, accessed 19 June 2020

81 Q38 [Lucy Frazer]

82 Letter from Lucy Frazer QC MP, Minister of State for Justice to Sir Bob Neill, Chair, Justice Committee, Deployment of temporary accommodation across the prison estate as part of COVID-19 mitigation plan, 22 May 2020

83 Letter from Lucy Frazer QC MP, Minister of State for Justice to Sir Bob Neill, Chair, Justice Committee, Deployment of temporary accommodation across the prison estate as part of COVID-19 mitigation plan, 22 May 2020

84 Q214 [Jo Farrar]

85 Q218 [Robert Buckland]

Published: 27 July 2020