A 2019 report on the economic and social costs of reoffending, the Ministry of Justice calculated the total at over £18 billion.[1]

Since the report was published the government has been committed to an ‘evidence-based approach’ to tackle crime and in particular stop reoffending.

As with many other areas of public policy, Covid-19 has impacted on the immediate strategy on reoffending, with prisons being a cause for concern due to their propensity for respiratory viruses to spread rapidly.

This article examines the governments’ response to Covid-19 in the context of prisons and reoffender management, as well as how they are getting back in line with their overarching goals following the pandemic.

The Immediate Impact of Covid-19 on Prisons and Probation

A range of measures were put in place to prevent the potentially devastating outbreak of Covid-19 amongst the prison population.

Alex Chalk MP, current Solicitor General for England and Wales, and former Minister of State for Prisons and Probation discussed the measures that were taken.

He dubbed the approach as ‘compartmentalisation’, it included quarantining new arrivals, establishing, and informing contacts of those who tested positive, and staff isolating when needing to.  

Further measures included the early release of low-risk offenders to ease pressure on prisons overburdened with inmates and staff who had tested positive.

Initial estimates predicted the death toll would be around 3000, however the measures introduced kept it relatively low, with 118 prisoners having passed away from Covid-19.[2]

In probation, a prioritisation strategy meant socially distant supervision could continue when necessary, and alternative methods like phone or video calls were used where appropriate.

The digital innovation spurred on by the pandemic also impacted the probation system.

Where necessary, phone calls and video calls via Zoom were set up to maintain a socially distant method of supervision. This technology was also used in place of in-person visiting hours.

The wider implementation of digital technology has also allowed education to continue. Every prison and young offenders institution now has the technology available for family ‘facetime’ and education facilities, across England and Wales at no extra cost to families.[1]

What Lessons have been Learned?

Chalk was keen to highlight that the lockdown measures put in place had caused a rethink on wider issues within the prison and probationary system, such as association time.

More association time, according to Chalk, was previously falsely equated with a better prison regime. More association time meaning more time to ‘be and feel human’, via socialisation.

However, this time is not always positive and is often when “debts can be settled, and fear can be spread” according to Chalk.[2]

This view is supported by the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), who also want the short-term measures enacted due to Covid-19 to remain part of the longer-term prison regime.

Mark Fairhurst, National Chairman of the POA has urged the criminal justice sector to “learn lessons from lockdown, and ensure that we restrict prisoner numbers, particularly during unlock… to ensure we maintain the stability and control that we have regained.”[3]

Others suggest that the benefits extend further than the control of the prison, but also help the prisoners themselves.

Robert Buckland QC MP stated that some men are “finding it actually a slightly easier regime in the sense that they are more worried about contact with other prisoners and find it a difficult aspect of prison life.”[4]

Buckland attributes less association time with lower suicide and self-harm rates in that first 3-month lockdown period.

However, others believe that this is a dangerous narrative that whilst benefitting prison staff, is sacrificing the mental health of prisoners and their chances of rehabilitation.

Andy Keen-Downs, Chief Executive of Pact, highlighted that “locking people up for 23 hours a day is taking a serious toll on the mental health of many men and women in prison, and people are really struggling.”[5]

The Broader Strategy on Reoffender Management

The Conservative Party declared their intention to be tough on crime, however Alex Chalk explained that this includes addressing the motivations that lead people to offend in the first place, rather than just an emphasis on enforcement.[2]

The aim is to build greater links with voluntary, community, and social enterprises to better support offenders to overcome their issues.

These often include substance misuse, poor mental health, and homelessness. Chalk also furthered the governments’ intentions to provide more inclusive services that account for gender, ethnicity, and disability-based needs that make each service user unique.[2]

In January 2021, the government pledged to invest £50 million into rehousing newly released offenders. The programmes being put in place aim to provide basic temporary accommodation for 12 weeks.

The aim is to stop prison leavers from becoming homeless, which can lead to them being twice as likely to reoffend and find themselves back in prison.[2]

This has been coupled with a recruitment drive for probation officers, as prisoners can find themselves with a lack of contact time with their probation officer or have a long wait for an initial meeting.

The core objectives of the governments’ strategy on reoffending now rest on instant access to housing and a probationary programme.

[1]Ministry of Justice. 2019. Economic and Social Costs of Reoffending.

[2]Chalk, Alex. MP. Minister for Prisons and Probation. National Plans and Guidance for Offender Management.

[3]Fairhurst, Mark. 2021. National Chairman, POA. Calls for long-term changes to prison regime.

[4]Committees.parliament.uk. 2020. Robert Buckland QC MP. Covid-19: The impact on prison, probation and court systems.

[5]Prisonadvice.org.uk. 2021. Andy Keen-Downs, Chief Executive, Pact. POA calls for long-term changes to prison regime.

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Covid-19 posed a dangerous threat to prisons, with the environment being a perfect breeding ground for the virus. This article examines the governments' immediate response, and the potential long-lasting impacts to offender management.

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