Peterborough jail criticised as female inmates kept locked in cells for 23 hours a day during COVID lockdown

HMP Peterborough has been criticised by inspectors as women prisoners were kept locked in their cells for 23 hours a day during the COVID pandemic.

Tuesday, 20th April 2021, 5:00 am
HMP Peterborough
HMP Peterborough

Inspectors visited HMP & YOI Peterborough women’s prison, which holds adult and young adult women, last month, and raised concerns women were feeling the debilitating impact of being locked up for nearly 23 hours a day in the COVID-19 period. Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) visited the women’s prison, on the same site as Peterborough men’s establishment, in March 2021

In January an inspection of the male side of the prison highlighted similar issues. The privately run jail is the only prison in the country with both male and female wings.

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Earlier this year there was also a COVID outbreak at the jail.

In the latest report, released today, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said: “Women repeatedly described the debilitating impact that being locked in a cell for about 23 hours every day was having and the toll it was taking on their mental health and emotional well-being. Some even told us they had considered suicide, although what we found was a prison that was safe, calm and well ordered.”

Levels of self-harm remained lower than they were pre-COVID-19, despite a recent slight increase. The number of recorded violent incidents had declined since the beginning of the pandemic and the environment and regime in the segregation unit were reasonable.

However, the use of force by staff had increased and was applied disproportionately to young adults and in the segregation unit, where generally stays were short. Mr Taylor commented: “We were not confident that across the prison force was always used as a last resort or that governance arrangements were sufficiently robust.”

Inspectors found that the prison treated the women respectfully, although there was evidence to suggest it could do much more to embed an approach that considered more fully the trauma many women had experienced and which is so often linked to their offending. Relationships between staff and women were generally positive but, Mr Taylor added, “the regular meaningful contact that is particularly important to women in prison was less evident.”

Equality and diversity needed to be promoted better and, while the provision for foreign national women was good, inspectors found some women with disabilities who required better support. Pregnant women received good support and mothers and their babies were well cared for. Health services were broadly equal to those in the community. However, three-quarters of women identified as having mental health problems and inspectors were not confident that they were all getting the support they needed promptly.

The daily regime was predictable, but at best most women could only achieve a maximum of one hour and 15 minutes out of their cell each day and this was often curtailed. Most women did not have enough to keep them purposefully occupied.

Women received effective support to help them maintain contact with their children and families, particularly in the absence of social visits. The Purple Visits video-visits system was very well used. In-cell telephones and additional credit were valued, as was the well-used email contact scheme.

There was some good work to support women on their release but many were released either without any housing or into emergency, short-term accommodation. Mr Taylor added: “This was not directly the fault of the prison but was symptomatic of a broader concern about the provision of suitable accommodation for women leaving prison.”

Mr Taylor said: “Leaders described [COVID-19] recovery plans that were ready to be implemented as soon as they were given permission to relax the current restrictions, although they also suggested an intent to progress with extreme caution. The management of risk will clearly need to develop as new advice is received. This was a reasonably good visit, with a number of encouraging features.”

Damian Evans, Director at HMP Peterborough, said: “We are proud of the work undertaken by our team and our professional partners and we remain appreciative of the continued cooperation of our prisoner population and their families.

“We note the recommendations raised in the report and are acting on them. For example, we have already ensured that all women are reminded about how to access the sanitary products which are always available to them.”