Lewes prisoners kept safe during pandemic – but restrictions were ‘not humane’, report finds

Inmates at Lewes Prison were kept safe during the pandemic, but being locked up in a cell for up to 23 hours a day is ‘not humane’.

Thursday, 24th June 2021, 9:39 am
Lewes Prison
Lewes Prison

These were the key findings from the annual report published today (Thursday) by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Lewes which monitors fairness and respect for people in custody.

Prisoners were largely kept safe from the pandemic due to ‘early planning’ and ‘fair and consistent actions’ by the Governor and her senior leadership team, the report found.

There was no spread of Covid-19 to the general prison population from those arriving, having already tested positive, until towards the end of January.

However, the regime restrictions – with the men being locked in a cell for up to 23 hours a day and a lack of opportunities for time in the open air – is ‘not humane’, the board said.

The prisoners’ reaction to the restrictions was largely one of tolerance and understanding – although the psychological impact on prisoners of being locked up every day for such long periods cannot be overstated, the report found. Selena Bevis, chair of the IMB at Lewes, said: “This has been an extraordinary year and we commend all the prison staff for keeping the prisoners safe as well as fully informed during the pandemic.

“The long term impact of the restrictions cannot be overstated.

“We are looking forward to seeing a relaxation of the current regime, and the return of education and work, enabling the prisoners to use their time productively in preparation for release.”

Neil Ambrose, a spokesperson for the IMB at Lewes, said the report covered almost a full year of covid – from January 2020 to January 2021.

“The prison was quite well insulated from covid in the first lockdown,” he said. “Mainly because Sussex itself had quite a low level of infection in the community.”

Any prisoners entering the prison were kept in a quarantine wing for a period of time in order to prevent any transmission.

However towards the end of 2020, as infection levels in the community increased, this had ‘a knock-on effect’ in the prison, with a number of prisoners and prison offers catching the virus.

This impacted staff levels, which led to prisoners spending more time in their cells and restrictions on education programmes.

Mr Ambrose said this was not good for the mental health of prisoners.

“That education, for some prisoners, can be their route for getting out of the revolving door of reoffending,” he said.

Visits to the prison were also ‘massively curtailed’, with no visits permitted during the first lockdown at all.

The prison then brought in a video conferencing system so that the men were able to video call their family members and friends.

Mr Ambrose said that, luckily, the prison already had in-cell technology which allowed prisoners to make telephone calls from their own cells – which was particularly useful during the pandemic.

One ‘unintended consequence’ of the restrictions on visitors was that there were ‘probably’ less drugs in the prison as a result, which has led to less violence, he said.

As to whether the level of restrictions imposed at the prison was justified, Mr Ambrose said: “The relatively low number of covid cases within the prison probably suggests it was, from a medical point of view, a good option to take.

“Whether more time out of cells could have been allowed and still given the same level of safety is possibly a question for the prison.”

The report also found that the prison’s own statistics appear to show a disproportionate use of force in respect of BAME prisoners.

Over a seven-month period from April to October last year, the average BAME population of the prison was over 17 percent who contributed to 33 percent of the use of force – a considerable disproportion, the board found.

In addition, the report said it was ‘of continuing concern’ that, despite the best efforts of the prison to treat all prisoners with decency and respect, those subject to Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs) have no set date for release.

During the reporting period there was an average of 13 IPP prisoners living in HMP Lewes.

Responding to the report, Hannah Lane, governor of HMP Lewes, said: “I am pleased that the IMB have recognised the hard work and dedication of staff at HMP Lewes during the pandemic; their efforts were quite exceptional and I am immensely proud of them.

“Keeping prisoners and staff safe during the pandemic was our immediate priority and in order to reduce the risk of widespread infection, we had to implement a number of control measures based on guidance published nationally by HMPPS.

“This including implementing a two-week period of more limited movement of all new prisoners during their first fortnight in the prison, to prevent the inward transmission of the virus.

“This meant that we could only unlock men in much smaller numbers than had been the case before Covid-19 and many activities (such as education, workshops, gymnasium and visits) had to be restricted at several points during the year, as they were in the wider community.

“This meant that for several months, due to the number of smaller ‘bubbles’ we had to manage, men were only out of their cells for one to two hours a day.

“Others, who remained in key worker roles such as cleaners and kitchen workers, continued to access work on a daily basis.

“In January 2021 the prison declared a Covid-19 outbreak and between January and March 2021, more than 200 staff and prisoners tested positive for Covid-19.

“This meant that we had to implement even more robust measures in terms of isolation of prisoners who tested positive, were symptomatic or had contact with other positive/symptomatic cases.

“Additionally the pressures caused by staff absences led to us only being able to unlock prisoners once a day for time in the open air and/or access to showers, cleaning materials etc.

“It is to the credit of both the hard-working staff and the cooperation of the men that we managed to ensure that all prisoners (unless isolating due to Covid-19) had access to some regime every day throughout this period.

“This was not a position that any of us at HMP Lewes wanted to be in, however the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic meant that it was necessary.

“Through this period we continued to offer access to healthcare services for those men experiencing mental health difficulties and other support was provided by prison staff, our multi-faith chaplaincy team and partners such as the Samaritans.

“Both LFD and PCR Covid-19 testing is now provided to staff and prisoners and the vaccination programme is well under way and we have been able to reopen much of our regime, with men being offered more time out of their cells and access to activities such as visits, faith groups and the gymnasium.

“In the coming months we hope to be able to progress this further by increasing the number of men in work and resuming classroom based education.”

She also responded to concerns raised in the report about the disproportionate use of force against BAME prisoners

“The senior leadership team at Lewes recognised this as a serious concern prior to the issue being highlighted by the IMB and took swift action,” she said.

“We ensure that documentation and video/audio footage of all use of force incidents are scrutinised by our use of force committee (which includes an independent observer) and that any matters of concern are addressed immediately, including formal investigation if appropriate.

“Any reports of discrimination on the grounds of race are investigated via our DIRF process and we have established a BAME prisoner forum to enable us to better understand their experiences at HMP Lewes and take action to address any disproportionality.

“In the coming weeks we will be launching a new diversity and inclusion training package for staff.”

New board members sought

New board members are currently being recruited by the IMB’s at both HMP Lewes and HMP Ford near Arundel.

Mr Ambrose said the positions were open to anyone, young or old, from any background.

Current board members, who volunteer their time for around two or three days a month, include people who work in engineering, telecomms, IT, retired people and higher education students.

“There’s no ideal candidate,” he said. “Someone who has some time which they are prepared to give to what is a rewarding job.

“It’s a great way to go and find out what prisons are like for yourself and to make a difference to ensuring the prison is run in a fair and humane manner.”

Anyone interested can visit the website here.