“Blank inactivity”: annual report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons paints a grim picture

Home > “Blank inactivity”: annual report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons paints a grim picture

26 July 2022

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This month the prisons inspectorate released their annual report, covering the year from April 2021 to March 2022. It paints a grim picture – of prisons struggling to manage, and failing to provide much needed education and activities during lockdown and beyond.

Starting the report with a quote from the annual report of 1982 forty years ago, the Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor makes the point that little has changed. Indeed, in many of the prisons that inspectors visited people were being locked up for even longer than they were in 1982.

Over the year, some prisoners were in their cells for 23 hours a day or more. And in category C training prisons – designed to be fairly low security, highly purposeful places, preparing people for the world of work – many prisoners spent their days sleeping or watching daytime television.

Education in lockdown

During the pandemic, prison education – which was already poor in delivery and outcomes – got worse, with little access to activities and prison classrooms closed.  Education was delivered differently – for example at HMP Rochester, following the second period of national restrictions, education staff were only able to visit prisoners on the wings at lunchtime to chat through a locked door or during brief unlock periods.

Learners were provided with in-cell materials so they could undertake independent study. However, the report says that the quality of in-cell learning methods was generally poor to begin with and did not improve throughout the pandemic. They did not meet the needs of those with a learning difficulty or with English as an additional language. In-cell learning was also no substitute for the practical, direct work of vocational training.

Teachers rarely used the in-cell telephones available to speak with prisoners and support their learning. In just a few prisons, such as Belmarsh, a handful of learners had access to laptop computers to support in-cell study. Access to the Virtual Campus for Open University students was inconsistent – available for use at Haverigg, but not at Hull or Woodhill.

Prisons in recovery

Following the easing of restrictions in May 2021, Ofsted inspectors found that one in three prisons was not working quickly enough to reintroduce education and work.

Classrooms at HMP Wandsworth were closed to prisoners between March 2020 and September 2021, meaning eighteen months without access. In HMP Durham, classes and workshops reopened but remained near empty, partly due to staff shortages. And at HMP Erlestoke, which holds around 440 people, there were only five prisoners in spacious workshops and four in the whole of the education building.

Very few learners had the opportunity to gain qualifications, with some exceptions at Manchester, Erlestoke and Swaleside.

Too little “blended” learning

Where classroom teaching had resumed, there was not always a creative approach to designing and delivering learning that blended in-cell and face-to-face approaches.

Thameside stopped issuing in-cell learning packs when classes resumed and, consequently, the number engaged in education dropped sharply. Other prisons fared better – at Haverigg, prisoners were taught in classrooms in groups of five, with in-cell packs supplementing the face-to-face sessions with tutors.

In particular, the report notes the failure of prisons holding young men, who were not being offered skills and education activities, saying, “They were learning to survive in prison rather being taught how to succeed when they were released.”

The shortage of prison officers – who are needed to facilitate access to education – is severe, with more leaving than being recruited. They often told inspectors that their work had become monotonous and unfulfilling, consisting largely of unlocking doors and chivvying small numbers of prisoners around the prison.

Officers said they were not able to engage with prisoners or offer them the personal support that they needed. Many assaults on staff were precipitated by prisoners’ frustration with not being able to complete daily tasks.

The future

The Chief Inspector comments that we do not know what the longer-term effect of lockdowns will be on prisoners, but is in no doubt that the loss of visits, education and social activity will mean there is a price to pay.

Over the last year more people than ever have left prison after spending almost their entire sentence locked up in their cells. A recent report from the charity User Voice highlights the extreme deprivations people experienced and the savage impact on their mental health.

A key theme running through the report is a lack of ambition and the failure to see the potential in people.

The report says, “If prisons are to be an essential component of a successful justice system that is trusted by the public to keep them safe, the ambition must be to go further, making sure that governors and education providers create opportunities for prisoners to develop vital skills that they can use when they return to the community.”

But as prisons come out of recovery after a horrendous two years, there is a chance to reset. It is a huge task and Prisoners’ Education Trust believe that funding is urgently needed.

We need to recruit and train more officers and more teachers, expand delivery, and improve outcomes for learners. Without this funding, prisoners will not develop the skills and knowledge they need to reach their full potential and become assets to their communities when released.

© Prisoners' Education Trust 2024

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