With the nation now moving into the next phase of COVID-19, the MoJ and HMPPS have provided a conditional roadmap for how prisons will now operate. This National Framework sets out the decisions that must be made on both a national and local level when easing the restrictions in both Public and Privately Managed Prisons.
Before detailing the new framework, it is important to remember the steps that the MoJ and HMPPS had previously taken at the outset of COVID-19, namely: that social distancing was to be observed; that movement of prisoners between prisons was limited; and finally, that the programme of Compartmentalisation was followed. Compartmentalisation essentially involves shielding the most vulnerable prisoners, isolating those who displayed symptoms and separating new arrivals at the prison for a defined period of time before they entered the general prison population. Despite a number of tragic deaths of both staff and prisoners, the prison estate has, to date, successfully avoided the worst case scenario of explosive updates.
Objectives and National Foundations
The new National Framework's Objectives are to preserve life, maintain security, stability and safety, and finally, to provide sufficient capacity. In order to achieve these, the Framework recognises that easing will have to be tailored to local circumstances and will be done cautiously and with the guidance of public health advice.
Given the heightened risk of COVID-19 within prisons, due to the number of vulnerable people in close proximity to one another, the timings of easing restriction will likely not mirror that of developments outside of prisons. This will mean that whilst certain activities, such as social visits and education, can resume, this will be at a far reduced capacity and any progress will be incremental.
To aid in the easing of restrictions, the Framework sets out that social distancing and hand-washing should be maintained where possible and consideration is being given to testing symptomatic prisoners as well as new arrivals at reception. Further, sufficient PPE must be available for all staff, which becomes important the more restrictions are eased.
Prison Regime Stages
Similar to the UK Government's approach, the MoJ and HMPPS have adopted a 5 stage approach to easing restrictions, which ranges from Complete Lockdown (Stage 5) down to Prepare (Stage 1). A brief summary of each of these stages is given below:
- Stage 5 (Complete Lockdown)- active outbreak and below minimum staffing levels. The regime would be focused on preserving life, there would be minimal if any time out of the cell as well as no transfers to and from the prison.
- Stage 4 (Lockdown)- significant number of infections both in and out of prison. A minimum required regime would be in place to ensure safety and decency, but there would be very limited transfers.
- Stage 3 (Restrict)- infection levels are under control and outside of prison is at or transitioning to Alert Level 3. Compartmentalisation would remain as well as social distancing and PPE. Depending on physical layout and design of each establishment, there can be a limited reintroduction of social visits, education and offender management work.
- Stage 2 (Reduce)- Either no infection in the prison, or very low contained levels and the outside community has low transmission. Compartmentalisation would remain in place and there would be a further easing in regard to education and visits. There can be a reintroduction of communal worship with restrictions.
- Stage 1 (Prepare)- No infection within prison or the wider community. No compartmentalisation would be required, but there would be ongoing screening. Routine inter-prison transfers and regime back to normal.
In regard to the above stages, Ministers (informed by HMPPS, Public Health England and Wales and the NSH) will make a ‘gateway’ decision, at a national level, on the principle of whether prisons assessed as suitable may be permitted to progress to the next stage. There will then be local discretion by Governors and Directors to determine how different aspects of the prison regime will be implemented and the likely timescale.
In order to assist Governors and Directors in making decisions on individual areas of the prison regime, updated guidance including Exceptional Delivery Models ("EDMs") will be published. These will address how to deliver the individual aspects at each stage identified above.
Oversight and Reporting
Prison Governors and Directors, with approval from Prison Group Directors and Executive Directors, will draw up plans for how they will operate in line with the National Framework and the EDMs, including how they will work with local partners such as healthcare, education, and the voluntary sector. Final approval of these plans rests with Gold command, to ensure a consistent approach across the Prison Estate.
It will likely be a welcome relief to those across the Prison estate that there is now a National Framework in place for the easing of restrictions. Although any easing will likely be slower than that in the wider community, it is nonetheless important to gradually move into the 'new normal'.
Author: Adam Hartridge