Serious problems in prisons will still need to be urgently addressed after the immediate coronavirus crisis is over, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons has warned.
Peter Clarke, writing in his fifth and final annual report in the role, said the existing problems with prisons must not be forgotten in light of the pandemic.
Mr Clarke, a retired Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner who has been in the post since 2016, said: “The challenges faced by many prisons, and the systemic weaknesses that we identified in some key areas, will not have gone away because of the health emergency.
“When the immediate crisis is over, there will still be an urgent need to address the serious issues that adversely affect the safety and decency of our prisons, the opportunity they offer for rehabilitation and their contribution to reducing reoffending.”
Mr Clarke broadly described the initial response to the crisis in prisons as “swift and well communicated to prisoners” with “extremely restrictive regimes” quickly imposed meaning inmates were locked up in their cells for around 23 hours every day.
According to BBC Newsnight, the Prison Officers’ Association said the practice, in place to stop the spread of the virus, has helped cut violence and self-harm and should continue to maintain a stable environment.
But Mr Clarke warned that could be dangerous, telling the programme inmates were “losing hope” and this could affect their mental health.
In his report, he said there was an “obvious” link between “excessive time locked in cells and mental health issues, self-harm and drug abuse”, adding: “Is it any surprise that self-harm in prisons has been running at historically high levels during the past year?
“Prisoners often tell us they are harming themselves to gain some attention, for instance if their applications or complaints are being ignored.”
Self-harm is “not really understood” and this must change to address the problem in different prisons, particularly women’s prisons, he said.
Mr Clarke described it as “worrying” that in the early stages of the pandemic “an apparent levelling off in self-harm was not properly analysed or explained, and some even tried to argue that longer periods locked in cells did not contribute to levels of self-harm.
“Such superficial commentary should, in my view, be treated with extreme caution.”
While warning that other serious concerns still remain, Mr Clarke said safety in prisons had been undermined by the prevalence of drugs and the impact this has on “generating debts, bullying and violence” and urged the Prison and Probation Service to make full use of the technology available to scan for concealed drugs.
He added: “My experience in those prisons where I have seen them operating is that they are warmly welcomed by staff, who feel safer.
“I have been given many examples of the deterrent and disruptive effect they have on the drugs trade in prisons.”
Among concerns raised in the wide-ranging report, he also warned of “systemic” failures in youth custody and offender management systems – highlighting problems with work to rehabilitate inmates and concerns over how children behind bars are handled.
Overall Mr Clarke said he has seen “enough during the year to make me cautiously optimistic for the future, but only if the early signs of focus and momentum that we saw in some prisons can be replicated elsewhere, and survive the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Government adviser and former youth justice boss Charlie Taylor is taking over the £135,000-a-year position next month and is expected to be in post for three years.
Prisons minister Lucy Frazer said: “Levels of self-harm and violence remain unacceptably high, and my priority is to improve safety and provide more support to vulnerable offenders.
“We have already taken action which is showing early signs of success, including investing £100million to stop drugs getting in and ensuring every prisoner has a dedicated officer who works closely with them.”