Spike in violence after coronavirus lockdown in Chelmsford Prison

Not a single prisoner was infected with COVID-19 at Chelmsford Prison – but this came at the cost of having to lock inmates in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

The COVID-19 regime at the start of lockdown on March 24 led to an immediate increase in violent incidents, according to a report by the Independent Monitoring Board, but these gradually reduced to pre-lockdown levels.

Assaults on prisoners totalled 142 compared with 163 in the period to lockdown. However, the number of assaults on staff was higher, with 99 in post-lockdown, compared with 64 in the first six months of the reporting year.

It took until August 2020 for assaults on staff to return to the pre-lockdown level. Most staff assaults were perpetrated by single prisoners.

The increase came amidst a heavily restrictive regime. New prisoners spent their first 14 days in quarantine on B wing before being moved to one of the other wings, where most of them spent 23 hours a day in a shared cell.

Social visits were suspended completely for almost three months until mid-June when virtual visits were introduced. Limited physical visits restarted at the end of July.

The gym and library were closed, no education classes ran, workshops were closed and very little work was available.

Preparation for release also suffered because many of the people from external agencies such as Nacro and Jobcentre Plus were not in the prison.

However, the Independent Monitoring Board, which has reported its annual findings, has acknowledged that steps were taken to make life more bearable for the prisoners.

All prisoners had a television and were allowed to make more telephone calls. They were compensated for not being able to do paid work and reading and education materials were made available to all who wanted them.

The board has also said that the effects of the coronavirus “should not be allowed to overshadow” some of the good progress made during the last 12 months.

Since the last visit, there was a reduction in the number of incidents of violence, self-harm and the use of force during the first half of the year compared with the previous year.

The presence of more experienced and better trained staff is thought to have helped and the introduction of a ‘youth council’ to give a voice to the under-25s – who make up about 22 per cent of the prison population – appeared to have an immediate effect on the behaviour of that group – notably in levels of violence and compliance.

However, the board had major concerns about the poor condition of A-wing – in particular. the segregation unit which needs major refurbishment to make it fit for purpose, as well as overcrowding in the prison – of the 690 prisoners, 288 are in shared cells, which is in conflict with the requirements of “decency and respect”.

The past year has been dominated by the pandemic and when the prison went into lockdown on March 24 there was a spike in violence in the period immediately after.

After lockdown there was a small increase in Open Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) – the care planning process for prisoners identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm – and a 14 per cent increase in self-harm incidents when compared with the same period in the previous year.

This was attributed to increased isolation and a lack of work and education.

In summary a statement from the board in the report reads: “The board is pleased to note that, during the first half of the year, there was a reduction in violence and the use of force; there were only 46 first-time incidents of self-harm, out of a total of 498; and key worker performance improved on the previous year.

“The board is concerned that, during the period since lockdown, the number of self-harm incidents has increased, as has the number of assaults on staff. The level of use of force also increased in this period. This was probably an inevitable consequence of prisoners’ extended periods of isolation with little purposeful activity.”

However, it added: “Despite these concerns, the board continued to be impressed by the care, professionalism and dedication shown by individual staff and members of the prison’s senior management team in a very challenging environment.

It is clear to the board that many of the failings mentioned in this report were not the fault of HMP Chelmsford but were attributable to government policy, which has starved the prison service of resources over a period of years.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter