Irish Penal Reform Trust

UK: HM Inspectorate of Prisons publishes Annual Report 2020-21

20th July 2021

HM Inspectorate of Prisons has recently published its Annual Report for 2020-21, covering the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the report relates to conditions in prisons and other detention settings in England and Wales, many of the practices and conditions reported reflect those previously reported in prisons in Ireland.

Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor acknowledged that, for those living and working in prisons, this had been “a year like no other”. He noted that during scrutiny visits, many prisoners said that they understood the reasons for restrictions, but felt drained, despondent, depleted, helpless and without hope. Although prisons largely succeeded in keeping COVID-19 at bay, this was achieved at “significant cost” to the welfare and progression of prisoners, most of whom spent the pandemic locked in their cells for 22.5 hours a day.

Despite it being a difficult year, the Chief Inspector recognised areas of promise. For example, the introduction of video calling for prisoners, and the ability of some prisons to make speedy progress to return to a full regime when national restrictions began to lift.

Among the key findings of the annual report are:

  • Prisoners were confined to their cells for most of the day. Many spent at least 90% of their time behind their cell doors for over 12 months.
  • Although mental health services had continued to provide some support to prisoners, most had ceased routine assessments and interventions. Long periods of isolation without purposeful activity had a profound effect on well-being, with in-depth interviews with prisoners revealing a decline in mental and physical health.
  • The rate of self-harm incidents increased in women’s prisons by 13% per 1,000 prisoners. Women were using unhealthy coping strategies to deal with long periods of isolation. Furthermore, the removal of face-to-face access to peer support workers and the loss of association periods deepened their distress.
  • The recorded number of violent incidents had reduced in prisons at the start of restrictions. Some prisoners felt that the reduction was probably temporary and had only been achieved due to increased time locked in cells, describing “grudges brewing behind cell doors” and violence taking place out of sight of staff.
  • The lack of physical visits had a “profound impact on prisoners who were unable to meet their loved ones, including those with young or newborn children”. When visits were reintroduced, the new arrangements included tight restrictions, meaning take-up was low at many prisons.

The report in full is available here.

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