Almost 17,000 prisoners could spent significantly longer in prison as lockdown conditions blocked opportunities for prisoners to demonstrate to the Parole Board that they had reduce their risk. According to the Prison reform Trust, nearly 11,000 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences and 5,815 prisoners serving extended determinate sentences were potentially effected.
An ‘exceptional regime management plan’ was introduced on March 24 confining prisoners to their cells for 23 hours or more every day for almost five months meaning that prisoners have been unable to make any progress on their sentence plans and are at risk being refused parole or transfer to a lower-security prison. Before Covid-19, there were over 5,000 offending behaviour programmes completed annually. The quarantine regime stopped these, resulting in the disruption of sentence progression for many. According to the inspectorate of prisons, the lack of meaningful sentence planning had left prisoners ‘frustrated that their progress had stalled’.
A new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust warns that the uncertainty 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 charity has been exploring the experiences of prisoners and their families during the pandemic as part of its CAPPTIVE project. It draws on evidence from 85 prisoners and 25 families, interviews with legal and criminal justice practitioners, as well as the findings of independent inspections at 15 prisons conducted during the pandemic.
One indeterminately sentenced prisoner said: ‘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… 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.’
‘You are combining what is already one of the most stressful point of a prisoner’s life [parole] with making the conditions appalling and knowing that they’re not making any progress. That is having a really serious effect on people’s mental health,’ said Simon Creighton, of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors.
Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: ‘The purposes of prison include working to ensure that the person emerges less likely to reoffend than when they went in; and that depends on opportunities for meaningful activities that develop skills as well as self-esteem. So long as the ‘regime’ for any prisoner consists of 23-hour days in [a] cell, the public are being short-changed on their investment in prisons. The prison service has committed to a ‘rehabilitative culture’. Now is the time to double down on that commitment.’