23.Rising demand for prison places, places being taken out of use and delays in building new prisons have put significant pressure on the capacity of the prison estate. At December 2019, the prison population had reached 98% of the usable capacity of the estate. 60% of adult prisons are crowded, meaning prisoners are sharing prison cells designed for fewer prisoners. The NAO found that the top ten most crowded prisons were operating at between 147% and 163% of their uncrowded capacity. Some prisons, such as Wandsworth and Durham, were hugely over capacity, at 152% and 157% respectively. Population pressures mean that prisoners are not always held in prisons that meet their needs. As at November 2018, there was a surplus of 18,700 places in local prisons serving local courts, and a shortfall of 15,000 places in prisons which provide training and resettlement support. This means that many prisoners live in unnecessarily stringent security conditions while others live in low-security environments relative to their higher risks. We received written evidence from Middlesex University, which told us that this lack of capacity resulted in prisoners “becoming trapped within a prison unable to meet their needs and denied a sense of progression to a lower security facility, cementing individuals into the local prison system”.
24.We asked HMPPS how it was managing crowding in prisons given the extent of the issue. HMPPS told us that its reconfiguration programme across the prison estate would help ensure that people were in the right environment for their sentence, as well as help ensure that it had the space to carry out maintenance in areas of the estate that are too crowded. In January 2020, HMPPS re-categorised HMP Haverigg, from a category C to a category D prison which increased the number of places available. In February 2020, it similarly changed HMP Manchester to a local category B training prison with category A remand functions. HMPPS explained that some of the programme had been put on hold during COVID-19, but that it was now back on track and expected further delivery by September. It expected that it would take a further two years to complete the work.
25.Before the COVID-19 pandemic, HMPPS expected demand for prison places to rise because of the government’s August 2019 announcement to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers. The NAO reported that HMPPS could need new prisons to be ready from late 2022 to avoid demand outstripping supply. We asked whether the new prisons would be available soon enough to meet this demand. The Ministry told us that its aim was to bring the new prisons into use in time to avoid this situation. It explained the first two these prisons, at Glen Parva and Wellingborough, were already being built, and that it had contingency plans if demand for prisons places rose faster than expected.
26.By 19 June 2020, some 500 prisoners and 10 children in custody had tested positive for COVID-19. A further 992 staff within HMPPS had tested positive for the virus. Up to 26 June 2020, 44 people categorised as ‘HMPPS service users’ had died where COVID-19 was the suspected cause. Of these, 23 were prisoners and 21 were probation service users. At the time of our evidence session, there had been no COVID-19 related deaths of service users since the week ending 29 May.
27.When infections take hold in prisons they can be very serious, so we were relieved to hear that the scale of the pandemic in prisons had not been as bad as was predicted at the outset. The Ministry and HMPPS nonetheless needed to make changes to the prison estate to try to reduce infection rates in prisons. The Ministry told us that it had worked with Public Health England to identify how best to respond to the pandemic within the prison estate. This included measures such as compartmentalisation and ‘reverse cohorting’ – making sure that new or transferring prisoners were separated from others for 14 days. The Ministry told us that while it initially thought that it would need to release a “fairly dramatic” number of prisoners, the measures it had taken meant this had not been the case. The Ministry also created extra prison capacity by using shipping containers as temporary cells. HMPPS told us that the dedication and excellent performance of working across prisons and probation could be clearly seen throughout the pandemic. The Ministry agreed that the quality of care and staffing provided by prison and probation staff during the pandemic had been extraordinary.
28.As part of our inquiry, we received written evidence from the Prison Reform Trust, Professor Nicola Padfield the University of Cambridge, and from Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. They told us that shortcomings in the prison estate, particularly the extent of crowding in prisons, had been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Institute of Criminology was concerned that people were essentially being left to “rot” in their cells, “bored out of their minds and sometimes banged up in overcrowded cells”. Both Dr Padfield and the Institute of Criminology told us that prisoners were being locked up to 23 hours per day, often with poor sanitation, with inadequate access to exercise, education or rehabilitation activity and that family visits had been suspended. The Prison Reform Trust told us that the Ministry’s compartmentalisation approach was made much more difficult to implement by crowding in prisons. It explained that crowding in prisons meant that there was no reliable means of ensuring that someone with COVID-19 was not sharing a cell with a prisoner who did not yet have the virus. It also said that overcrowding meant that keeping cells clean was an “impossibility” which increased the risk of transmitting disease and, in the worst cases, outdated sanitation arrangements had led to the return of “slopping out”.
29.Both the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge and the Prison Reform Trust told us that while the worst-case scenario for deaths from the pandemic had been avoided, the cost to the mental health of prisoners was certain to be very high.. We asked how HMPPS was addressing the impact of this on the mental health of prisoners. HMPPS recognised how difficult it could be for people to be locked in their cells for longer than usual. It told us that, despite this, it had seen some “positive indicators” of mental health during the pandemic, including a reduction in the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody and a reduction in the rates of self-harm in prisons. It explained that it had worked with prisoners to make sure their mental health was looked after, including providing distraction packs, key worker arrangements and working with health partners on its mental health provision. It told us that it was considering that lessons it could learn from the pandemic that would better support prisoners’ mental health in future.
30.The prison population fell during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of the cancellation of jury trials and fewer cases coming through from the courts. In March 2020, almost half of all courts were closed and jury trials were paused to minimise social interaction between court users. By June 2020, the media reported that this had created a backlog of 483,000 cases in the magistrates courts and 41,000 in the Crown courts, and that this was increasing by up to 3,000 cases per week. We asked the Ministry what plans it had to manage the impact of this backlog on the prison estate. The Ministry told us that it was determined to get the Crown courts back up and running. It was unable, however, to give us a month or year by which we could expect it to have cleared the backlog of cases. The Ministry told us that the Lord Chancellor would be making an announcement “very shortly” which would provide more information. Following our evidence session, the Lord Chancellor announced a recovery plan for the Courts and Tribunals Service on 1 July 2020. The plan committed to reopening all courts and tribunals which had been closed to public and stated that all remaining sites would be opened in July.
31.The Ministry and HMPPS told us that the fall in cases coming through from the courts, and the subsequent lower demand for prison places, had given it the headroom it needed to manage the prison estate during the pandemic. They explained that at the start of the pandemic they had aimed for headroom of between 3,500 and 5,550 places to deliver a safe COVID-19 regime. HMPPS said that, despite the need to create opportunities for people to shield and to isolate prisoners with symptoms of COVID-19, it had “got pretty close to that”. The Ministry recognised that it was vital that it was able to provide the places that would be needed as courts started sending people to prison again.
32.In its written evidence to us, The Prison Reform Trust asserted that there was nothing in the government’s planning, short or long term, which would better prepare the prison service for a future outbreak of COVID-19 or a similar pandemic. It told us that, in the immediate future, the prison service was likely to be in an even worse position should infection rates rise. We asked HMPPS what plans it had in place to ensure that it was as prepared as possible if there was a second wave. HMPPS told us that it was making sure that it kept the headroom that it needed, including working with Public Health England to identify what options were available to it. This included exploring whether it could quarantine incoming prisoners more efficiently and move people out more quickly than 14 days. It assured us that it was confident that it could cope with a second wave.
50 C&AG’s report, paras 6, 1.9, Figure 4
51 Q 42
52 Qq 38–39, C&AG’s report para 1.10
53 IPE0005 - , Dr Matthew Cracknell, Middlesex University, London, 1 July 202
54 Qq 38–39, 42
55 Q 74, C&AG’s report para 1.11, Figure 5
56 Qq 42, 74
57 Qq 14–15, Ministry of Justice, , 3 July 2020
58 Qq 20–21
59 Q 108, IPE0007 - , Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe (Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Director of the Institute of Criminology at Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge) 1 July 2020
60 Q 98
61 Q 103
62 IPE0007 - , Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe (Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Director of the Institute of Criminology at Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge) 1 July 2020
63 Professor Nicola Padfield (Professor of Criminal and Penal Justice at University of Cambridge), 1 July 2020; and IPE0007 - , Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe (Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Director of the Institute of Criminology at Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge) 1 July 2020
64 IPE0003 - , Prison Reform Trust, 1 July 2020
65 IPE0003 - , Prison Reform Trust, 1 July 2020; and IPE0007 - , Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe (Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Director of the Institute of Criminology at Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge) 1 July 2020
66 Qq 27–28
67 Qq 21, 61, IPE0009 - , Howard League for Penal Reform, 1 July 2020
68 Ministry of Justice, , 27 March 2020; and Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, , 23 March 2020
69 Q 116
70 HM Courts and Tribunals Service, , 1 July 2020
71 Qq 21, 61, 108
72 Qq 46, 116
73 IPE0003 - , Prison Reform Trust, 1 July 2020
74 Qq 61, 109
Published: 11 September 2020