Submission to the Justice Select Committee on Covid-19

This briefing builds on previous information given to the Justice Select Committee including that submitted on 2nd April, and our Covid-19 Briefing. We fully support the submissions of the Prison Reform Trust and Howard League for Penal Reform and share their deep concern and growing frustration about a lack of progress, sense of urgency or transparency in the response to Covid-19 in prisons. Along with many other charities, those working in prisons and probation, academics, families and those living in prisons we see overwhelming evidence that the protection of life and public health is not being prioritised at Ministerial level, the catastrophic consequences of which flows through the whole system in prisons and in the wider community.

1. Protection of life, transparency & communication in prisons

We continue to be deeply concerned about the impact on protection of life, wellbeing and safety of restrictive regimes, stopping prison visits and limited ability to self-isolate (e.g., cell sharing, ‘revolving door’ in and out of prison, staff movement round prisons, practice of ‘cohorting’). All of this, including 22-3 hours a day in cells exacerbates mental ill health, risk of suicide and high levels of self-harm (a particular issue in women’s prisons). Anxiety levels across the prisons and by family members are extremely high with a palpable desperation for information and action.

We call again for a clear national position on free and accessible phone calls in and out of prison (and extension of the email reply system across the prison estate). The current position means family and support workers are unable to contact women to organise needs assessment/release preparation, e.g., assessing risks, discussing self-isolation and providing emotional and practical support. This must be urgently addressed at a national level and publicly communicated so these essential lifelines for essential support are enhanced, rather than further constrained.

2. Urgently reducing the prison population

We share the bewilderment of other charities and those working on the ground in prisons and the probation service as to why there has been so little action to reduce the flow of people into prisons (at court, through recall etc) and to facilitate compassionate and early release. The figures given to the Select Committee on Tuesday 14th April show how limiting the conditions for release have been.

There still do not appear to be clear compassionate or early release eligibility criteria or national arrangements for ‘through the gate’ including guidance for charities on ‘face-to- face’ meetings (and availability of personal protection equipment (PPE)). There is still not clear national information about transport from prison or access to mobile phones to enable individuals to stay in touch with services. It is positive that the discharge grant is to be increased from a pitiful £46 to £80 but when this runs out it will fall to charities on the ground to support people resettling in the community in the new Covid-19 lockdown conditions. Plans need to be made for this support to be in place.

3. Mobilising community support services on release

There still does not appear to be a national plan for early or standard prison releases which routinely involves criminal justice charities and enables sufficient support for addressing issues such as homelessness, including securing emergency housing during Covid-19. Women in Prison provide women’s centres in Surrey, Manchester and London and other specialist support to women leaving prison, along with other women’s sector charities including Birth Companions and Hibiscus. We know that women are being released homeless into destitution and without the means to stay in touch with services. This week we were given less than 24 hours notice to support a woman with no fixed abode who we have had no previous contact with and who is from outside our service areas.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis we have been working with other women’s centres and charities attempting to be involved in preparing women for release through in-reach into prisons and community-based support . One development has been a form distributed last week by HMPPS for charities to complete explaining the support they offer, but we are still no further forward in mobilising resources that already exist and helping to facilitate well planned releases from prison. The nature of the women’s prison estate and distance women are held from home makes national coordination vital, as a regional/local approach will never be adequate on its own. Such national coordination and information would enable us to negotiate more flexible referral criteria with local commissioners where current services are constrained by time (eg, 48 hours after release)or locality.

In many cases support services are already being funded by a complex combination of funding strands (independent trusts and foundations, local authorities, police, health). Yet, these services are unable to mobilise to support a reduction in the prison population because of lack of clear Ministerial direction and a national plan to make this happen. Even where charities are in ‘supply chains’ with CRCs, communication has been patchy and ineffective both locally and nationally.

Since social isolation measures began earlier in March, women’s centres, and other support services have established systems for intense support via phone and online. Virtual Women’s Centres now enable women to have a dedicated member of staff to connect them with local services, access emergency supplies and participate in virtual group/peer support. Yet this valuable resource to help make resettlement successful risks going to waste as there is still no national system to enable charities to plan and use their resources effectively. This may partly account for why the release of pregnant women and those on MBUs has been so minimal (14 women of the 60 suggested earlier in March). Without Ministerial prioritisation of a coherent national plan for reducing the prison population, community support services have not had access to the information and processes needed to play a full role in preparing for women’s release.

As state support services have buckled in this crisis, women’s centres and other specialist women’s charities have been stepping up and into that gap, including in places like Manchester where the Greater Manchester Women’s Support Alliance has established effective systems for local multi-agency working including in response to the desperate housing needs for women created by Covid-19. Due to lack of sustainable funding, charities working in this space are forced to secure resources from a range of sources in order to survive the crisis and provide the support that women and their families need. Yet even now these services stand waiting to support delivery of a strategy to reduce the women’s prison population, including responding to the immediate crisis.

We know that over many years the Justice Committee has identified the need for specific action in relation to the women’s prison population. In 2018 the Government published it’s ‘Female Offender Strategy’ which has strong cross party support and is founded on the well-established fact that the women’s prison population could be significantly reduced by an alternative focus on strong community support that addresses root causes of offending. Women are often serving short sentences for low level offending (such as shop lifting) and in the vast majority of cases women in prison do not pose a risk to the public. The Covid-19 crisis provides an additional public health driver to reduce the prison population that could take this longer term Government strategy forward.

It is with the deepest sadness, bewilderment and horror that charities like our own have to stand by as this tiny window of opportunity to preserve life, relieve pressure from the prison system, protect our NHS and ultimately even actually improve one tiny corner of the broken criminal justice system slips through the fingers of the Government.