Learning as we Deliver Prison and Probation Services Through a Pandemic

February 10, 2021
Gill Attrill
Deputy Director, Insights GroupHMPPS

Throughout the pandemic HMPPS has been capturing and sharing lessons learned from our ongoing response to COVID-19.   It is important that we build on our evidence-based approach and seize the opportunity to learn from how we have adapted services. We have been listening to different experiences and perspectives, and have paid attention to the challenges and difficulties for our service users and staff alongside the many examples of positive practice and efforts to do the best in very difficult circumstances

This article focuses on learning in prisons.

Learning has focused on the following priority areas:

  • Keeping people alive and safe from infection, in our prisons, probation services and surrounding communities
  • Protecting the physical and mental health of all our people
  • Helping people maintain their relationships and connections
  • Finding opportunities for progression, rehabilitation and hope within the restrictions that COVID-19 demands
  • Delivering public protection and maintaining stability and safety in our system

These echo many of the challenges we are all dealing with as a wider community, and it is clear that the conditions of imprisonment have added significant complexity and risks on a daily basis. The potential for serious loss of life and instability was clearly identified at the beginning of the pandemic. The relative calm, security and stability in the system and the management of infection have given us the opportunity to learn more about how to run our prisons well, whilst also identifying where things should be changed and improved, and where we need to pay more attention to specific groups.

How are we learning?

We recognise that learning is an ongoing process and that we are learning about complex issues influenced by many factors, not least in the midst of a fast changing public health crisis. We are being careful that we do not over-simplify, or over-generalise, what we have learned so far. We are also aware that new data and feedback are coming in all the time and that this is an evolving process.

This has been achieved by combining the existing evidence base with the work of colleagues and the voice of service users across the system. We continue to draw together multiple perspectives, a wide range of data and information sources. We have tried to minimise the demand on operations by learning from what is being done already before instigating new learning activity. We have been able to hear the voice of thousands of staff and service users.

Externally we focused on evidence from a range of scrutiny bodies and partners, including health organisations. We have also heard emerging findings from consultations undertaken by partner agencies in the voluntary and private sector.

Examples of learning in prisons

Some of the key messages from learning in prison have been:

  • As with the wider community, there is a continuing and increasing emotional and mental health strain for residents and staff to which we need to pay continuing attention and work with partners to understand and address.
  • Relationships between prisoner residents and staff have been critical to helping keep everyone safe and as occupied as possible.  Allowing time for staff and residents to connect, talk and show interest and concern, demonstrating compassion and kindness are particularly important
  • The importance for wellbeing of gestures of kindness and support, good communications and feeling fairly treated, practical help, doing good together, time to talk, camaraderie, and opportunity to innovate and try different ways of doing things. Prison residents reported keeping occupied and having contact with family as things that helped them cope
  • The value of having time to understand the needs of individual prison residents
  • The positive value for staff and residents of working together on projects around the establishment such as fundraising, horticulture or environmental improvement (activity that may not be recorded as purposeful or educational activity but which creates stability, camaraderie and reinforces positive identities)
  • The benefits of focusing on fairness and clear, humane communication explaining what is happening and why and showing parity with local community COVID-19 restrictions
  • An appreciation of practical help from staff who could answer questions about residents’ sentence plan and release
  • Staff and residents’ preference for doing activities in smaller groups compared to unstructured association time. Feedback suggests smaller groups allowed more individual attention and relationship building as well as reducing some of the potential for bullying, violence and intimidation
  • Appreciation for regimes feeling predictable
  • The importance of finding opportunities for rehabilitation and growth, and building on these as soon as possible so that residents can progress in their sentences
  • Engagement in and the usefulness of in-cell distraction packs, which reduced over time in some places and continuous effort is needed to bring purpose and meaning to in-cell activity 
  • Consulting and collaborating with establishment residents and staff when designing and implementing changes to the regime brought greater buy-in and cooperation
  • The value of technology in maintaining connections with families, friends and services, ensuring processes such as parole hearing could continue, providing ways in which probation and other professionals can reach into a prison
  • There have been many examples of enhanced partnership working which has been critical for public protection. There have been reports of an increased willingness to adapt, co-operate and collaborate, including improved sharing of information, joint working, and faster decision making, resulting in positive outcomes for service users. Digital technology has enabled better attendance at multi-agency meetings
  • However learning from partner agencies suggested we needed to find more opportunities for collaboration and communication with the Third Sector
  • The pandemic has affected different people in different ways. What may work for one person, may not work for another. We are committed to ongoing learning, and continuing to reach out and listen to different voices across our staff and service user groups, to ensure that we are responsive to different needs and considerations

As a system we have found multiple ways of identifying and sharing positive ideas and good practice within prisons. As the pandemic has continued prisons have used learning from the first wave to;

  • prioritise resources on activity that has been shown to be most helpful (e.g. enhancing wellbeing conversations and checks, introducing new wellbeing networks, building in time to talk and reflect on work, enhancing communication channels and content, increasing resident consultation)
  • adapt provision (e.g. shifting to more active, creative and vocational in-cell activity and qualifications, redesigning PE and activities for outside, introducing new in-cell telephony and video links, introducing new ways for residents to connect with others inside and outside the prison, using new technology to manage infection control)
  • increase their efficiency
  • reinforce fair and decent cultures which build camaraderie, stability and positive identities (e.g. facilitating activity such as food banks, charity support, PPE making and key working in the community). Prisons have also come together as stronger, more supportive communities with Governors and local prison staff focusing on more and innovative ways of engaging their teams and prison residents leading to a greater sense of shared endeavour and responsibility.
  • show strong and visible leadership (increasing briefings, writing personal letters to staff and their families, greater use of teleconferencing, modelling consistent COVID safe behaviour, building an increased pride in prison staff as keyworkers)

We have identified where learning will help recovery and progress the prison and probation system; we have been feeding insights into prison safety and wellbeing initiatives, regime redesign, winter planning and ongoing mitigations, Probation recovery, the reform of our culture and rehabilitative environment and efforts to drive more effective partnership working. We are reflecting the strong desire across HMPPS to build back better and to use evidence and learning.

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