Prisons after lockdown: changing the core day

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Francesca Cooney, Head of Policy | 20 July 2021

Group of learners

In the second of three blogs about how prisons are recovering from the pandemic, Head of Policy Francesca Cooney talks about education and the changes PET would like to see to the core day in prisons.

Over the last few years, the core day in prison has become shorter and shorter. Even before the lockdown introduced in prisons in response to the pandemic, many prisons were letting people out of their cells from 8.30am and locking them up at 5pm, sometimes earlier.

And many prisons were not even able to facilitate their core day due to lack of staff. The 2019–20 annual report from the prison inspectorate found that, before the pandemic, nearly one in five men said they were out of their cells for under two hours on weekdays. In local prisons, where people are held after being remanded or sentenced in court, this rose to nearly a third.

Changes long overdue

Changes to the running and understanding of the ‘core day’ are long overdue. The evidence is very clear that the best chance of reducing reoffending involves encouraging meaningful activity, and that has to mean enabling time out of cell. But prison regimes still largely run around the convenience of officer work patterns, rather than what creates a rehabilitative culture.

And if the prison service is going to create new regimes with smaller cohorts, this could further limit the time people have access to activities and cause additional unnecessary lock-up. The only way to avoid this is to lengthen the core day.

Time out of cell in the evenings, which once was standard and used for cultural, creative or leisure opportunities, is now rare. Association time – when people can speak to peers, make phone calls, have showers, and do domestic tasks – is often not long enough.

Instead accessing healthcare, family visits, time in the library, exercise and association has been squeezed into the core day – between 8.30am and 5pm.

Evening classes

In the community, all further education providers offer courses in the evenings and at weekends as part of their standard provision. Many of us who are not in prison go to the gym, library, places of worship and social and cultural activities in the evenings and at weekends. This should be the same for people in prison.

Creating a core day that does not include any time unlocked in the evening reduces autonomy and is infantilising. It does not help people to manage or organise their time or take responsibility for their lives.

Three hour classes and locked up at lunch

There are problems with the structure of the core day. Class lengths, particularly for people with additional learning needs and for functional skills lessons, are often too long. They can last for 2 ½ to 3 hours – far longer than in the community.

And moving more education out of the classroom and embedding it in other activities has long been advocated as a way of improving engagement.

Despite massively improved technical and technological security, perimeter fences and other measures to prevent escape, prisons continue to require a roll call at lunchtime. This usually means that people have to go back to their cells to be counted. Generally, people are locked in their cells and can’t be unlocked or moved off the wing until the roll is correct.

Moreover, most prisons stop activity in the middle of the day to allow officers to take an hour’s lunch break.

The reality of this is that many prisoners are locked in cells for up to two hours over lunch, even when they are technically allocated to fulltime work or education. Again, this does not replicate how people work in the community, and it means that classrooms and workshops are frequently empty and unused.

If the core day were organised differently, people would not need to go back to the wing at lunchtime and could eat in their place of work or study.

Making purposeful activity a priority

Adapting the regime and enabling different ways of working, combined with enabling more time in workshops, classrooms and other meaningful activity, will demonstrate to prisoners that purposeful activity is a priority.

If learners know that their time is valued, their days and evenings are occupied and their time in prison is purposeful, they will be more motivated and engaged.

Increasing the core day isn’t easy. Staff shift patterns will need to change, and there will need to be new arrangements and contracts with providers. It will take time to organise and negotiate. But the Covid lockdown has meant that people think about work patterns differently, and many people working and living in prison would welcome these changes.

There are many community and voluntary organisations that would be willing to provide activities that would enhance and enrich the delivery of meaningful activities. Arrangements to commission activities need to be flexible and straightforward, so that prisons can bring in services that support the needs of their particular population.

Prisons need to have the resource – both in funding and in staff time – to support this.

Recovery from the pandemic offers an opportunity to change our expectations about what a normal day in prison should be like, to make it much closer to a normal day in the community.

This blog is part of a series of three on how prisons are recovering from the pandemic and what this means for prison learners. Read part one ‘restrictions, regimes and recovery’ and part three ‘creating a positive environment for studying’.

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