Security market analyst

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Hunter Seymour is a security market analyst with expertise in both the fire and security markets.
May 5, 2020

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The Video Surveillance Report 2023

How the prison service is responding to COVID-19

Hunter Seymour examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the prison service and the challenges it presents to the professionals working in the sector.

Rarely has the Law of Unintended Consequences been so graphically demonstrated than in the case of prisoners in ‘lockdown’, in itself a grim custodial term for indefinite confinement of inmates in their cells under sanction. It is those consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – in particular, the ‘Coronavirus Restricted Temporary Release’ proposals for prisoners – that are currently challenging the resourcefulness of the UK’s custodial professionals: the Ministry of Justice, Prison Officers, Probation Officers and the wider community support services.

Having, then, sifted the very latest reports from these sectors, we intend our overview here to be a brief analysis of the prison service’s very latest responses to the Covid-19 dilemma, with emphasis on practical solutions advanced by informed insiders.

Current status of Custody Temporary Release

Latest figures indicate that 300 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 across 69 prisons and 237 prison staff have tested positive across 57 prisons, while 10 Prisoner Escort and Custody Services (PECS) staff have tested positive. On 4 April, the Government announced that up to 4,000 risk-assessed prisoners who are within two months of their release date will be temporarily released from jail under the ECTR Scheme (End of Custody Temporary Release on licence) within statutory criteria set out in augmented Rule 9A of the Prison Rules 1999. The selected low-risk offenders are to be electronically tagged and released in stages, although their recall is subject to breaches of licence. The ECTR process is voluntary. If a prisoner does not wish to be released in this manner, they may remain in prison.


Foremost, prison staff are directed to ensure a “Risk Screening Check” is undertaken for ECTR prisoners, which includes a healthcare check to determine that their release can be safely managed (both for themselves and others in whose charge they are placed). All prisoners must be examined by a healthcare practitioner during the 24 hours prior to discharge.

Measures to mitigate prison overcrowding in response to COVID-19

There has been much criticism of prison overcrowding from UK media commentators, with assertions that in this pandemic “one-to-a-cell” self-isolation could be achievable for prisoners only following an extreme reduction of the prison population by up to 15,000 prisoners.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) countered such claims with this statement on April 9: “Across the estate, prisons are moving towards single-cell accommodation, as much as possible, to limit the spread of infection and the number of deaths.” From the date of this announcement, it’s stated: “Work to expand the prison estate” would commence “by installing the first of 500 temporary, single occupancy cells . . . only lower-risk category C and D prisoners will be held in the temporary units, following careful risk assessment.”

To ease pressure on jails, the first wave of sites has been chosen “because they have the highest number of shared cells, lack in-cell sanitation and house high numbers of vulnerable prisoners.” In addition, the MoJ states it is working with the judiciary to expedite sentencing hearings for those on remand to reduce the numbers being held in custody.

On 28 April, HMPPS announced it is containing the spread of COVID-19 within jails using an approach known as ‘compartmentalisation’. Through this approach, staff have isolated those with symptoms, and many prisons have been able to shield the vulnerable and quarantine new arrivals. Thanks to wide measures taken since March, states HMPPS, the prison population has already reduced by almost 3,000 over a seven-week period.

Repurposed units for off-site cells

The Unexpected Consequences of this proposed temporary cell expansion are suggested in a number of reports from newspapers of record. The Daily Telegraph claims that leaked documents reveal “The MoJ plans to create an extra 2,000 temporary cells, some from converted shipping containers, to ensure single cells for prisoners and ‘shield’ the vulnerable from the coronavirus.”  What’s more, it’s alleged that the MoJ is to repurpose hotels, such as Travelodge and Marriott or B&Bs, private rented and local authority accommodation because of the risk of homelessness or unsuitable accommodation for prisoners.

In a similar move in April, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) negotiated with holiday resort chain Center Parcs to provide accommodation for POA members needing to shield themselves from their homes due to working on the front-line during the outbreak.

Playing Russian Roulette

These insights aside, though, the overall picture of prisoners and their custodians under COVID-19 lockdown remains distinctly patchy.

Steve Gillan, the POA General Secretary, says: “These are extremely difficult times and there is no easy solution to this. The Prison Estate is significantly overcrowded and holding in excess of 80,000 prisoners.” He cautions those prison managers who have allowed prisoners out for exercise and association in large numbers with examples of “as many as 70 prisoners let out any one time. That is a recipe for disaster.” At the time of the Easter Monday Bank Holiday there was in excess of 7,000 prison staff self-isolating. He adds: “We need government to make key decisions about reducing the prison population. There needs to be risk assessments and safe systems of work in place through Health and Safety legislation to prevent recklessness going on in some of our jails.”

The majority of prisoners are taught correctly to socially-distance, but the POA says that, even in immigration centres, groups of up to 70 are freely associating at any one time. The POA claims this hazard is due to the fact that the Home Office is committed to not treating immigration centres in the same way as prisons. “It comes down to common sense,” Steve says. “There must be no chance here for playing Russian Roulette with the safety of those in our care and the safety of our prison staff.”

PPE: Rumbles of discontent

Despite these warnings from the POA , there continue to be rumbles of unease from the grassroots of the prison service, particularly on the issue of sufficient provision of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

Mark Fairhurst, POA National Chair, challenges the Government’s claim to have delivered on their promise of PPE to prison staff. “We need Personal Protective Equipment and COVID-19 testing and we need it now.” He continues, “There is no capability of isolating all those that may have COVID in one specific area, neither is there an opportunity to offer all those who are self-isolating the opportunity to do so in a single cell. We wish we could, but the chronic overcrowding which has plagued us for years is now stifling our efforts to halt the spread.”

Reality check from the wings

Mark sketches out harsh facts of front-line supervision: “Imagine opening a cell door to a prisoner who is displaying the signs of coronavirus – without a face mask because we have none left. Then imagine trying to give prisoners exercise in the open air whilst trying to convince them to stay two metres apart. Most wings house anything from 50-250 prisoners. We have to shower, exercise and give phone calls to them all in a day, every day. The risks are obvious and without PPE they are multiplied beyond calculation… We even fight fires and rescue people when prisoners decide to commit arson.”

Prison-COVID19-20These concerns are echoed by the probation services: “Where staff are working in the prison there is a need for guidance and possibly PPE relating to key/lock use, as there is much more requirement to touch handles/locks/door surfaces in prisons as doors and gates are locked and unlocked multiple times by a large number of staff.”

The latest briefings from the MoJ contest some of these counterviews: “Prisons are operating under temporarily restricted regimes… In recognition of the importance of continued contact with family and to ensure stability in our jails, the Government has moved quickly to keep prisoners in touch with their family members. We are providing 900 secure phone handsets across 57 prisons which do not have existing in-cell telephones. The Government recently announced an extension of testing to prison and probation staff. Staff who had been self-isolating because they or a member of their household have symptoms of coronavirus will be able to return to work where they test negative.”

Hidden heroes behind the halfway houses

For the probation services in the community, the issues affecting released prisoners can be compounded further due to the sheer variousness of workplaces encountered by staff. Napo, the national union for probation officers, highlights a number of the problems inherent in the complex interactions between Offender Management Units (OMUs) and ‘through the gate’ rehabilitation teams burdened by the demands of the current crisis.

Primarily, in response to COVID-19 and in order to facilitate the delivery of the probation/prison ‘Exceptional Delivery Models’ in the community, both the Prison Service and the Probation Service have reviewed the placement of probation officers in public sector prisons and resolved that 50% of officers currently deployed in custodial environments should be redeployed to community-based teams.

However, Napo states that probation officers are concerned that most OMUs have office/workspaces of modest size so social distancing is restricted. In these circumstances, the alternative of home-working for management units in the community continues to be under review by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

HMPPS states: “In order to support the principles of social distancing within Offender Management Units, staff should be supported to work from home where possible.” This redeployment will be in conjunction with prison managers, and will take account of government guidance and practical application. The HMPPS team has been clear that during this exceptional time of redeployments there are no plans for Probation staff to take on prison operational roles.

Of particular concern to Probation Officers in the community is the case of Approved Premises (AP). An AP is a halfway house for offenders who have been released on licence. HMPPS has confirmed that in the case of APs there may be some duties which mean social distancing cannot be maintained. In those cases, PPE must be used. In addition, from HMPPS has come the directive that if there are non-AP workplaces (or parts of workplaces) where social distancing cannot be achieved, they must not be used.

As may be seen, the COVID-19 crisis has given rise to immense complexities in the prison and probation services, which prompt disturbing questions and difficult answers that are still being formulated by government. Nevertheless, with the focus, rightly, on front-line NHS staff, we must not lose sight of the hidden heroes in the service of our prison population who, despite these challenges, are keeping the country safe while resolutely adjusting to the uncertainties of the “new normal”.

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